Sunday, December 15, 2013

Inn of Christmas - in or out?

Is the Christmas Inn – out?

We have grown up with the image of Mary and Joseph arriving at Bethlehem only to miss out on a bed. The picture of them in a cattle stall and the baby in a manger remains vivid in the mind. Just recently I was stirred to check out the word for ‘Inn’ as recorded by Luke. It is a Greek word and used three times and only in the gospels.

children in a Christmas play.

‘Kataluma’ means ‘a loosing down’ and was used to describe a place where travellers untied the packages, unburdened their animals and untied their sandals. It came to mean ‘Guest Room’ as mentioned in connection with the Upper room where the Lord’s Supper was held. (Luke 22:11. Mark 14:14.). This is the same word used and for some reason translated as an 'Inn' in Luke 2:7. There is one other mention of an Inn by Luke. It is in the story of the ‘Good Samaritan. The word used there is ‘pandocheion.’ It means ‘a place where all are received.’ It was the equivalent to our hotel and motel arrangements.

How easy it is for any of us to fall into the trap of accepting tradition and superstition without checking out the biblical sources. It would appear Mary and Joseph arrived at possibly family or at least a friend’s house. However the guest room was full. These were situated on the upper level of the two tiered houses. The bottom area was for storage and their cattle etc. The owners of the house made room for Joseph and Mary in that area. When Jesus was born the rock hewn cattle feed manger became the cradle.

This all points to the fact that at the birth Mary had family present or at the very least, friends. How long after she had settled in ‘downstairs’ before the birth will never be known. To this section of the house the shepherds would have come. And when Matthew records the visit of the Magi he mentions the house. More than likely the holy family stayed on after the census had been completed. From that house they would have packed up and fled to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod.

I have another reason to lean towards the ‘Inn’ being the guestroom of a house. In the Middle East there was, possibly still is, a custom of accepting even strangers into your house. This comes out in many stories, biblical and secular. An example is Job’s concern for the ‘men’ who visited him in Sodom. Genesis 18 has the account. It would have been virtually impossible for the owner of the house to turn Joseph and Mary away if space could be made for them.

The beautiful and evocative nativity scenes of the manger will never be replaced by the biblical reality, unfortunately. This highlights the difficulty Truth has when dealing with personal assumptions, prejudices and accepted but unjustified traditions. Still, when we come to grips with some new information and insight that is in harmony with the biblical text we must readjust our thinking. The scriptures cannot be broken. When they are believed and obeyed they will however bless.

For me the Inn is out. The appeal of the bible gives me a deeper appreciation of the people who surrounded Joseph, Mary and Jesus at this time. It highlights the strong family bonds and sense of community from that time and place. It contrasts so graphically the breakdown taking place in the Middle East right now. Luke’s account of the host’s generosity and willingness to be at some inconvenience for another’s welfare humbles me. We can be all nostalgic at Christmas time as we ponder the accepted version of the nativity scene. Maybe we should be more pragmatic and apply the bible’s implied and explicit teachings this event to ourselves.

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