Who was there to celebrate your birth? I trace my first minutes of life to Sale Memorial Hospital, Neosho, Missouri. My dear mother, Julie, was no doubt relieved to have a healthy boy after suffering an earlier miscarriage. I was welcomed by my Dad, siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles into the world. All those loved ones have passed, but the legacy of love lives on. At this season of the year the birth of Jesus is on our mind. Obviously, it occurred in a real family. Let’s try to understand it more from the pages of the Gospel of Matthew.
The Gospel writers were not writing biography as we know it today. They were crafting theological statements about the identity and mission of Jesus. It was important especially for Matthew to connect Jesus to events familiar to Jewish readers. Jewish rabbis employed a narrative style called “midrash,” an amplified story about the meaning of a Biblical event. These accounts wove together real and imagined events. Most scholars believe this was the genre Matthew used, building from basic events and imagining the details. Believers would say this was under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the benefit of the Church.
Matthew 2:6-7 reads, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room.”
This New Revised Standard Update Edition correctly translates the Greek word “kataluma” as “guest room,” not “inn,” just as the word was used in the ancient world. The normal style of homes in that era had a two-story structure, with the family area and guest room on the upper floor and a stable underneath. If Matthew wanted to describe a public inn, he would have used the word “pandokheion.” Even today, Middle Eastern customs place top priority on hospitality to family. A long-lost relative would have been accommodated by the family, at the risk of dishonoring the family name. This perspective leads to the better understanding that Joseph and Mary stayed with relatives in a crowded house, so crowded the guest room was already occupied, and they had to use the lower floor for lodging. With the crowd, she had to give birth in the stable and use the manger (cut in the stone wall) as the bed for Jesus.
Many story-tellers have used the idea of a crowded public inn and a dour innkeeper who rejects a wandering couple as a metaphor for Jesus as the Outcast unnoticed by a busy world. However, the understanding of “kataluma” as “guest room” directs us away from a rejected family and a lonely birth towards a birth accommodated by the extended family and village. It places the holy family in the context of relationships, support, and heritage. We visualize a Jewish community full of life, laughter and amazement at the new life born that day. I think Matthew was imagining that Jesus began his life in the closest thing to Heaven on earth: the relationships of a loving, human family.
American culture has come to idealize family holiday connections, while at the same time moving toward isolation, anonymity, and separation. We cry at the final line of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.” Perhaps we know that our social life is becoming more fragmented each season. May and Joseph had experienced fear, anxiety, and rejection. But it’s possible that the night Jesus was born all that disappeared in the joy of birth among their kin. It seems best for us to re-imagine the birth of Jesus as a family affair and re-affirm the importance of family in our spiritual journey.