By Nathan J.A. Humphrey
I recently came across an article online by the Rev. Ian Paul, a priest and seminary professor in the Church of England. I have to admit that when I saw the title “Jesus Was Not Born in a Stable,” I did an involuntary eye-roll, “Here we go again. More revisionist drivel. I was expecting something along the lines of “Mary wasn’t a Virgin” or “Joseph, not God, was Jesus’ ‘real’ father,” or “Jesus may not even have existed at all, according to some dubious interpretation of newly discovered Egyptian scroll fragments.” When I come across such things, as I often do in my Facebook feed, I’ll occasionally skim them. Luckily, I’m a very closed-minded person. As all priests are. So my blind faith is unperturbed by any inconvenient “facts.” Ignorance, as they say, is indeed bliss.
But I must admit that reading this article woke me from my “dogmatic slumber,” as the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote of his fellow wise man, David Hume. Apparently, a careful reading of Luke 2:7 in the cultural context of first-century Palestine leads to a completely different scene than the familiar and beloved one enshrined in that corner of our church.
But before I get into the details, I want to assure you that I will not be arranging to have either a Crèche-burning or an auction of our ancient figurines. I will not henceforth picket the Christmas pageant across town at Emmanuel Church. (It was a record 26 minutes flat this year. Now that’s church!) Nor will I ban our choir from singing, “Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed” or Christina Rossetti’s gentle ode, “In the bleak mid-winter.” Have no fear that I will swing from passive dogmatism to the other extreme of iconoclastic dogmatism.
But I do want to draw on this article to paint a slightly fuller picture of that first Nativity, one that can coexist as a more accurate one alongside the artistic and poetic traditions that this blessed event has given birth to down through all the years “Anno Domini,” the “years of Our Lord.”
Luke 2:7 tells us, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” At first glance, this verse appears to need no interpretation. Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, found that all the hotel rooms were already booked, but managed to find an innkeeper who took pity on them and showed them to a lowly but warm detached stable where Mary gave birth and laid Jesus quietly in a manger.
Ian Paul doesn’t question that Mary laid Jesus in a manger — he finds nothing particularly unusual about that, as we shall see — but he does take issue with the traditional interpretation of the Greek word for inn. The original word, for all you Greek scholars taking notes in the pews, is kataluma, which means generically, “lodging,” but more specifically, “guest room.” Kataluma can have the notion of an “inn,” such as a Bed & Breakfast — that is, a spare room in a person’s house, but the more specific Greek word pandochion means “hotel,” that is, a place where hospitality is offered to strangers.
The use of the word kataluma is telling, according to Ian Paul, because it indicates that Joseph, far from seeking lodging from an innkeeper of any variety, whether a B&B or the local Holiday Inn, most likely went to the house of his nearest kin in Bethlehem, but found the guest room was already full. Joseph, arguably, would not have gone to a pandochion, a hotel, because being from Bethlehem, and of the house and lineage of King David, he would be expected to seek out his relatives.
Even finding that there was no room in the spare room, he and Mary would have been brought into some relative’s house, where they would have bedded down on the lower level, in the main living space. Ian Paul notes that most of the time, the kataluma was on the second floor, or even on the roof of the house, as we find in Mark’s gospel when Jesus sends the disciples to find a kataluma where they may eat the Passover, and are shown to a “large upper room.” But more on that later.
But what of the manger? Well, in many typical Palestinian peasants’ homes down to this day, it is not unusual for the stable to be attached to the house. The animals are led into their stalls on the other side of the living area, with a wall between them, perhaps not all the way up to the ceiling, so that the warmth of the house can get into the stalls and the warmth (and smell) of the animals can fill the house.
In such houses, as ancient archaeologists and contemporary sociologists can show you, there would be openings on the ground between the stall and the living area where hay would be put for the animals to feed on — mangers, in other words. So for there to be a manger in the living room of a first-century Palestinian house would be nothing out of the ordinary, and the original readers of Luke’s account would have inferred that this is how it happened.
Fascinating, isn’t it? Well, unless you are a Greek scholar or a fan of New Testament era archaeology or sociology, you may be wondering, as I did when I first read Ian Paul’s article: So what?
Well, I’ll tell you. This information about the kataluma has at least two theological implications for how we hear this story. These implications touch on two ways this story is intended to shape our understanding of how God relates to us, and our understanding of how we are invited to relate to God.
The first is that the picture of Mary and Joseph giving birth alone, out back where nobody knows what’s going on, and no one is around to help or care, simply isn’t true. The house where Jesus was born was so packed that people were bedded down in the living area, the main sleeping area, and the spare room.
If you’ve ever heard a woman in labor, as I have (twice), you know that it tends not to be a quiet, serene affair. So people were paying attention. And when Jesus is brought into the world, there’s a mad scramble to find something warm for him to wear and a place for him to lay his head. Thankfully, old cloths are in abundance, and there’s at least one manger right there, full of fresh hay that will serve nicely.
As one preacher whom Ian Paul quotes puts it, this opens “a whole new perspective on what it means that Jesus came as one of us. Not hidden away in either that lowly stable or in the carefully prepared guest room … but [he] came into the world in the midst of the main living space, with all its chaos and noise. Because of that, it’s easier to imagine him joining me in the chaos and noise of my everyday life, and not needing to take myself off to some totally luxury-denying place away from the world, or even a carefully prepared space (like a church) where everything is ‘just so’ in order to meet him. He is truly Immanuel, God with us.”
As Professor Paul comments, “For Luke, Jesus isn’t pictured as born ‘over there’, away from everyday life … but at the heart of the home, asking whether we too will make space for him. He isn’t pictured as poor and outcast … asking what we can do for him, but as a child of hope and promise, asking what he might do for us. He isn’t pictured as rejected, inviting us to pity him, but as welcomed, asking us whether we will welcome him too.”
So that’s the first thing: a more accurate reading of this story brings Jesus right into the thick of things, where he belongs, and where he demands our attention, not just on Christmas, but every day. Anyone who has ever cared for a newborn knows how demanding newborns can be. And yet, as demanding and exhausting as they are (most of the time at least), we freely and willingly give of ourselves to them, that they might thrive. We lose sleep so that they might sleep. We are awake when they are awake. Babies demand our care, our nurture, our nourishment, and our love. And so does Jesus.
The second way this information can shape our understanding of how God relates to us, and our understanding of how we are invited to relate to God, comes from the fact that the Greek word for guest room, kataluma, is also found at the end of Jesus’ life. In Luke 2, there is no room in the guest room, so he is born outside of it — still in the midst of everything, demanding our attention, but not in a special place. However, 20 chapters later, in Luke 22:7-13, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem, and Luke tells us, “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.’ They asked him, ‘Where do you want us to make preparations for it?’ ‘Listen,’ he said to them, ‘when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, “The teacher asks you, ‘Where is the guest room [Greek: kataluma], where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.’ So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.”
This Passover is, of course, the Last Supper, the meal at which Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the Mass. In the “upper room,” in this specially prepared kataluma, Jesus gives us his own Body and Blood. At the beginning of his life, there was no room for him in the kataluma, so his Body and Blood is born into the chaos of the world, yet in the heart of family life. Now, as he prepares to return to the Father, he invites us into his kataluma, so that we can partake of the same Body and Blood that demanded our attention and care when he first appeared in Bethlehem. But this time, there is “room in the inn,” and there always will be. This altar is our “upper room,” our kataluma, where we are invited to meet the One who came into the very midst of us so that he might draw us to himself.
This is where scholarship and poetry join hands, where truth and true community are to be found. If you came this evening to hear pretty music and to see beautiful decorations, I hope your ears and eyes have been duly enchanted. But what will you take away from this holy night? Well, if nothing else, I hope you will come away knowing that there’s room for you in the inn here, and there always will be.
The Nathan J.A. Humphrey is rector of St. Thomas’s Church, Toronto.