On this very turbulent Christmas in this very turbulent year, I’m drawn back to the first Christmas. Stick with me. I’m not a theologian or a pastor. This is still a travel blog. But I want to work through a familiar story and then bring it back to us today.
No Room At The Inn?
There’s this idyllic conception of the story of Jesus’ birth, as recorded in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. Mary and Joseph show up in Bethlehem and there is no room in the inn, so they must seek shelter in a cave or barn that houses animals, where Jesus was born and laid in a feeding trough.
How quaint, right? Too bad Joe didn’t have elite status with a “guaranteed room” at oversold properties.
But that’s unlikely what happened. Luke uses the Greek world katáluma that was first translated into English (from Latin) by William Tyndale as inn. But the word actually means guest room, as in extra room in a house. It’s the same word that was used to describe the site of the Last Supper prior to Jesus’ death.
Luke does use the better word for inn, pandócheon, in his story of the Good Samaritan in chapter 10. Specifically, the good Samaritan takes the wounded traveler to an inn (pandócheon), and instructs the innkeeper to care for him, promising to pay for the care.
So this idea of the Joseph knocking on the door of a hotel and the manager shrugging and say “no vacancy” is misplaced.
Think about it, if Jospeh and Mary were heading to their ancestral home to take part in a census, it isn’t too difficult to conclude that Bethlehem, the City of David, would be full of relatives.
Now many modern scholars leave it at that and say that homes were filled, Mary and Joseph arrived late, so they were accommodated in a guest room that also happened to be used for the animals.
I’m just speculating here, but I wonder if there is something more to the story? Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married and all of a sudden Mary is pregnant.
Think about the scandalous perception.
Either she and Joe were engaging in some extracurricular activities prior to marriage or Mary got knocked up by some other guy.
Either way, the perception was not just bad, but damning. According to Matthew 1:19, when Joseph found out his wife-to-be was pregnant, he prepared to “put her away”. Most scholars believe that meant divorce.
But under the Mosaic law, the penalty for fornication was death and isn’t it more reasonable that Joseph’s dilemma wasn’t whether to divorce her in secret or publicly, but whether to conduct an honor killing to protect the dignity of his name and the purity of God’s people, as prescribed in the Books of Moses?
As the story goes, an angel appeared to Joseph, told him the baby was conceived of God, and told him to proceed with his plans to marry Mary.
And he did.
But imagine again the perception. They arrive in Bethlehem where are all their family is. Mary is pregnant and about to give birth (i.e. she’s huge). She and Joseph have not yet married.
Is it any wonder they could find no room for lodging?
Think of the chatter behind their backs. The assumptions about what a total lack of self-respect that fool Jospeh has for himself, his family, and even his God.
Why should anyone open the door up for a filthy harlot and her stupid man?
Thus, it becomes clearer why a woman about to give birth could not find a place to give birth. You really think that if all was well, a crowded house would be a hindrance?
Have you ever experienced Middle Eastern hospitably? Most will give you the clothes on their back and the food on their table without you even asking.
You really think that a poor teenager about to give birth would just be shunned? There must be more to the story.
But we know that someone did eventually take pity on them and give them room. It wasn’t the best room in the house, but it was better than giving birth in the town square.
And think about the reputational cost of that act of kindness. Think about how when you aid and abet “evil” you are lumped in with that evil.
Maybe I read far too much into that story, but I herald the man or woman who opened up their house to Mary and Joseph as an inspiration this day.
Christmas, reflecting upon God’s gift of Jesus, is rooted in selfless giving. Even our secular understanding of this holiday centers upon giving to others.
And we’re in this horrific time in human history in which there are so many people in need around us. Many of these people made wrong choices, but are nevertheless in need.
We can turn our backs on them and say they get what they deserve, or we can be like Tony Aldapa, who administered CPR to a man who selfishly and knowingly boarded a flight to Los Angeles while experiencing horrific COVID-19 symptoms.
He showed the Christmas spirit of selfless love, even at great personal cost. What a testament to his character. And just like the sneering scoffers of the first century, so are many dismissing the act of kindness showed by Aldapa.
On this day and everyday, may we look for ways to serve one another. Accountability is a necessary good, but lending a helping hand to those in need, no matter their seemingly poor choices, is what it means to be fully human.