It must have been an arduous journey, but Mary, heavily pregnant, and Joseph, her loyal fiancé, at last make it to Bethlehem to get themselves registered. We know Luke’s story (2:1-7) so well. It’s one of hospitality refused, or at best an example of some outsiders being relegated to the margins where all they’re granted is a little space in a dirty stable, to be shared with an ox, a donkey and an assortment of sheep … and sometimes some camels thrown in for good measure. Sadly, there’d been no room at the local inn.
We do realise, of course, that the ox and donkey have been imported from Isaiah 1:3. The sheep must have been accompanying the shepherds, although Luke doesn’t tell us that. As for the camels – well, that’s Matthew’s story, but then, he doesn’t talk about camels either. Luke again mentions no stable, but that surely is where the manger would have stood.
But let’s get back to Mary and Joseph. Having just about made it to Bethlehem, the sudden onset of Mary’s labour pains makes them rush to the nearest inn, only to be refused accommodation. Except that Luke tells it differently. They’d already been in Bethlehem, apparently for some time, when the labour started. So, what about the inn? While the Good Samaritan leaves that poor, beaten man at an inn (pandocheion) to be cared for (10:34), Luke here, as in 22:11, talks about a guestroom (kataluma) instead.
What if we’ve got it wrong? What if this is a story of hospitality generously given, as would have been likely in 1st and also 21st-century Palestine, in a society that prizes hospitality? Bethlehem being Joseph’s ancestral home, the couple may have been staying with his relatives. They were clearly staying in someone’s kataluma or guestroom, as the Common English Bible recognises. But when the time comes for Mary to give birth, there’s not enough space for that. Did they have to share the guestroom with other visitors at such a busy time, or was it simply too small?
Mary, as we know, ends up placing her baby boy in a manger, though probably not in the famed stable that Luke never mentions. It more likely stood in an area near the front door where the family’s animals were kept at night. The hosts themselves would have lived, eaten and slept on a raised terrace in the same room. For Mary, Joseph and their child to be taken into this family room, where the baby could be placed in an empty manger, wasn’t an act of unkindness. Quite the reverse. For them to be allowed into the family’s inner sanctum was an act of generous, caring hospitality.
Dependent, as one without a place to lay his head (9:58), upon such hospitality, this new-born Messiah would one day extend it to those at the margins – occupying soldiers, tax collectors, lepers and prostitutes, the loathed, shunned and despised – inviting us to act like him and embrace the ones whom others reject, denounce and vilify.