A Christmas surprise
As usual, this year’s holiday season was more or less a “road show” for me. It began in early December on the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, with everyone joyfully preparing for Three Kings Day. Then after celebrating Latin Christmas and Gregorian New Years with my family in suburban New York, it moved abruptly to Jerusalem for Armenian New Years (January 13), and to Bethlehem on January 18, together with dear Armenian friends for the Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity. The various celebrations impressed me deeply, each contextualizing indelibly yet differently the event of Christ’s birth for their respective communities. Still I could not help but notice that in the move to adopt and adapt the Story, certain key details of the historical event have been lost along the way. And I suspect that if we could visit again that first Christmas in Bethlehem, there would be a few surprises awaiting us.
One of these surprises would be the circumstances of the birth in Bethlehem. All traditions import that no lodging was available to Joseph and Mary, whether due to crowded conditions at census or suspicions about Mary’s pregnancy. This based upon a verse in the book of Luke (2:7) stating that “…there was no room for them in the inn.”
I assure you that middle easterners today who hear this are shocked by this detail. First, because hospitality is a such strict obligation for households in the middle east. No seeker, absolutely no one, can be turned away. And as Joseph is returning to his home of origin, one cannot imagine, especially with a full-term pregnant woman in his company, that he would not have found warm hospitality in any home there, even in an overcrowded situation. And then inns, or khans, were seedy places in first century Palestine and, to say the least, were inappropriate lodging for women in this or any other condition. Middle easterners hear this story differently than do westerners. They assume that Joseph and Mary would have found lodging on first try, as Matthew’s account suggests (2:11), and that Jesus was born within the confines of a home in Bethlehem.
So how does this fit with the information in Luke about “no room” in an “inn?” To resolve the apparent discrepancy it helps to know something about village housing in first century Palestine. In addition to living space and work facilities for its householders, village domiciles contained two required rooms. One for guests who might happen by. Receiving guests increased the prestige of the house and brought news to the family. The “guestroom,” or kataluma (literally, “a large room”), was the most elaborately decorated and best appointed room in the home. Here is where Joseph and Mary would have stayed in the home they approached. And it is this word, kataluma, or “guestroom,” that appears in Luke 2:7.
Then, homes in that culture contained within their walls a stable for draft and pure-bred animals. Because of the legal/ritual requirements, animals raised for slaughter at special events like weddings, funerals and festivals, were cut away from the herd and grain-fed from mangers within the home. Fecal remains and feeding troughs have actually been recovered from these spaces. The animals therein invariably received names and were treated as pets. The story of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:30-37) illustrates well this convention. Jephthah promises God that if he gains victory against the Ammonites, he will sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever “comes out of [his] house” upon his return (11:31). Naturally, he expects a house animal to emerge from the stalls when he returns at first light.
This information permits the following reconstruction of the Christmas story. Joseph and Mary were shown to the guestroom of a home in Bethlehem, and they planned to stay there for the duration of Joseph’s business. At some point during their residence, we cannot know when, Mary goes into labor. And then the conditions of the guestroom, public and overcrowded, were no longer suitable for her condition, prompting Luke’s summary of the situation (see above). Joseph and Mary have few options then for privacy with midwife support. They choose to retire to the animal quarters somewhere else in the house. And there the Child was born, one of the mangers serving as a cradle for the newborn.
This was the actual location of Christ’s birth. But Luke’s point doesn’t stop there. He reminds us in providing this historical detail that the Savior, one evangelist will call Him the “Lamb of God,” was born in a room set aside for sacrificial animals. And like these animals, He will be raised not to live, but to die. In fact, to give His life as an offering for others.
Most traditions incorporate a habit of giving gifts at the holiday season. This is God’s greatest gift to all of us. Peace with God and goodwill toward one another has been accomplished in the life given for you and for me. Have you opened your gift yet? It could be the beginning of a whole new life for you. A life with God really in it. And you have only to receive it.