Editorial: Christmas hospitality
No one wants to pour cold water over beloved Christmas traditions, or at least not me. But I’ve read many New Testament scholars saying that there is no ‘inn’ in the biblical Christmas story, and I buy it. They say the word is a mistranslation. If so, much of our traditional Christmas story is built on its sand.
Kenneth Bailey’s hugely interesting book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes is one of these. He says that houses in first-century Palestine tended to have just two rooms. The first would be for the family and animals, the second exclusively for guests. The first was built on two levels: the higher part for the family to eat and sleep, the lower part at the front for their animals to spend the night, with a trough dug into the platform so oxen could eat at night. The second room would wait till someone needed it.
So the very architecture of houses illustrates how tremendously important hospitality was in that culture. In later life, Jesus had no home of his own but could depend on strangers for food and a bed wherever he went. How much more warmly would Joseph be welcomed at his family home, with a pregnant woman at his side? So what’s all this about an inn?
Bailey notes that Luke’s word, kataluma, means broadly ‘place to stay’; it could mean ‘inn’, it could mean the guest room of a house. The other time Luke uses it, before the Last Supper, Jesus says: ‘Say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ When Luke does talk unequivocally about an inn, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, he uses another word, pandocheion.
Put all this together and the Christmas story takes on quite a different flavour. No rejection by innkeepers, or by ‘his own people’, no relegation to a stable. Rather, Joseph returns to his home town because of the census, as others must too, and his hosts say: ‘We’re terribly sorry, the guest room is already full. Would you please sleep with us in our own room?’ Mary lays the baby in the tub of hay beside her bed.
So maybe Luke’s story is not one of rejection, but of Jesus, of the Holy Family, being warmly welcomed by ordinary people, because they were in the habit of welcome. They were habitual sharers, givers, hosts, and so when God came in need of a bed they were granted the privilege of being the ones to give it. Whenever we give, we do not know whom, ultimately, we may be giving to. Merry Christmas.
This article was published in the December 2022 / January 2023 edition of Reform