(Tim Carson shared the following meditation on Christmas Eve 2013 at Broadway Christian Church, Columbia, Missouri)
The funny thing about Christmas messages is that they are always based on the same story. And yet, like a diamond, that story has many facets. I have visited many of them through the years. But the one I share tonight is the most often overlooked. In fact, you don’t hear about it anywhere. That’s why I want to share it with you.
As you sing many of the carols, attend those bath robe Christmas pageants or glance at the cover of many Christmas cards you receive the traditional and popular version of the nativity, of what happened to the Holy Family in Bethlehem. And it roughly goes like this: Mary and Joseph come into town and there is no lodging available, except for an innkeeper who lets them bed down out in back in the stables. There are the animals and Jesus in the manger. See, this is how the world shuts out the savior.
I have no quarrel, theologically speaking, with that story. it is the one that I and most of us grew up hearing. There are truths to be mined there. It’s just that there is a difference between a tradition that has grown over centuries and what the earlier Biblical text actually says.
As I studied the Christmas story in Luke more carefully I noticed something unusual. The story says that Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem for the enrollment and after they were there for a while it came time for Mary to be delivered. In other words, they had already been staying somewhere before she gave birth. If that’s the case then why would they leave where they are already staying and seek alternate lodging in some commercial inn, one that has no rooms but only a stable out back?
The answer to this question is found in one word, a word we have rather sloppily translated into English as inn.
When you hear that word, inn, and if you are familiar with the Gospels, you will automatically think of a parable Jesus told, the parable of the Good Samaritan. What does the good Samaritan do for the poor fellow beaten by the side of the road and left for dead? He binds up his wounds and then takes him to an inn where the man will recuperate until the Samaritan returns and settles his bill with the inn keeper.
In this story the Greek word behind our English word inn is pandocheion. This Greek word is the one most commonly used to define a commercial place for lodging, accommodations for travelers, a Motel 6. We’ll keep the light on for you at the pandocheion.
If this were the same word for inn used in the Christmas story then the traditional reading with which we are all most familiar might be upheld: Mary and Joseph sought accommodations as out-of-town travelers but when they couldn’t find a motel room they were relegated to the shed out back.
But guess what? It is not the same Greek word at all. If Luke wanted to say that they looked for a motel room and couldn’t find one he would have just used that common word for inn just as he did in the story of the Good Samaritan in his same Gospel.
In the nativity story Luke uses the much less common but much more specific word, kataluma. They put the baby in the manger because there was no room in the kataluma. Now we see that there is not one Greek word we’ve translated into English as inn but two separate words with two separate meanings. So what is the particular meaning of the Greek word used in the Christmas story?
The kataluma is neither an inn nor a motel. It is rather a guest room, an extra room, a dining room, or an adjoining room. In Middle Eastern fashion, all of these rooms are connected to or an extension of the house, often times interior courtyards where the animals are safely kept. A kataluma could be any of these extra rooms of the house used to house guests.
When we take the fact that Mary and Joseph already had accommodations and had been there some time before she delivered and that they were not out wandering the streets going from motel to motel, we have a different story. What is likely is that Mary and Joseph had returned to their ancestral village and were most likely receiving the hospitality of extended family. They were staying with family and had been there for some time.
This past Thanksgiving our family headed to my brother’s house in Kansas City. My brother’s family extended hospitality to us, offered to put us all up. But their house did not have sufficient rooms outfitted with beds so they offered to furnish their office with inflatable mattresses so we could all fit. There was no room in the guest room but they found other adjoining space in the house and were going to make it work. At least we would be together.
When it came time for Mary to deliver, they were not searching the streets for an available motel room. There was no room to put the baby in the kataluma – the guest room – perhaps because there was other out-of-town family staying with them for the enrollment, too. So they placed him in a manger, right there in the house. One meaning of the Greek word for manger, phatne, is indeed a feeding trough for animals. But another meaning is also a place for guests. And since there is actually no mention of the friendly beasts hovering around the baby in Luke’s story, the phatne might be another guest chamber, one beside the guest room.
All things considered, this changes our understanding of how Jesus first came into the world. This is not a story in which the holy enters the world amidst hostility and darkness. The starting place is a different one.
Whatever else comes later, the beginning of God’s appearance among us is centered in the place of our living, our homes, there where families live and children are born and grandparents grow old. The beginning of the Christmas story is not one of rejection but rather joyful welcome. This was not a birth of isolation; it was most likely just the opposite. Most probably Mary and Joseph were surrounded by loving and caring extended family. Mary’s birth was attended by older women who served as midwives and the child was welcomed into the world amidst adoring and proud aunts and uncles and cousins. It was a family event.
That is what the shepherds find as they come down out of their fields into town and gaze into that Bethlehem house. And that is the way it is meant to come to us as well.
Whatever else comes later in our lives, the beginning place of our story with God is one of joy and welcome, God showing up in the midst of family, daily life and the other great events that mark our living. This story, our story, is an exceedingly tender one and leads us back to the place of belonging, a place to which we may return time and again, a state of original peace and harmony that precedes any of the ways we later separate ourselves from God or neighbor.
So on this holy night, let your shepherd feet run toward the sound of angelic voices, the deepest place in this world or within you, the Bethlehem of the soul, and within the city a house, and within the house a guest room, and beside that guest room a manger, and in the manger light and then more light. And you are home.