For some inexplicable reason in the midst of this steamy July, I’ve been thinking a lot about — of all things — Christmas. Maybe to help me feel cooler?
More likely it’s because of my own recent experience of finding “no room at the inn.”
Perhaps like me, you grew up with a romantic, soft-focus version of the Christmas story, complete with Mary on a donkey escorted by Joseph over gentle Judean hills toward the little town of Bethlehem.
Every year I read the typical translation of the line in Luke that says, “And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.”
In this translation it seems that since the “inn” in Bethlehem was full, Mary and Joseph ended up out back with the animals. And so to this day, creches the world over portray a rough stable with a baby Jesus nestled in a manger.
This severe poverty of the birth story has been uncomfortable for some scholars, so they take pains to point out that the original Greek text uses the word “kataluma,” meaning a guest room in a private residence rather than a modern inn or hotel.
However, the real problem is more about the lack of hospitality than with childbirth in a barn.
The idea of the holy family being turned away from suitable living quarters certainly goes against the grain of most Mideast cultures. In the Hebrew Bible at Deuteronomy 10:19, God tells the Israelites to “love the stranger.” And Leviticus 19:33 says, “If a stranger dwells in your land, you shall not mistreat him.”
In fact, throughout Jewish and Christian scripture, denial of hospitality to one’s visitors — even if they’re strangers — is clearly depicted as an outrage.
Scholars have tied themselves in knots trying to make sense of these things. How could a God be born in a common stable? Why, only pagan gods had such lowly beginnings, like the Persian sun god Mithra, said to have been born in a cave.
These are some of the many unsettling questions the gospel writers and early believers wrestled with. Was Jesus a peasant or a king? Was he born a man or a god?
And what about that most uncomfortable truth of all: that he had been executed as a common criminal?
But enough of ancient struggles. On to today’s difficulties.
Back in February, my wife and I left for Italy on a long-planned extended sabbatical. Arriving overseas, we were foreigners, obviously, but we felt welcome enough as we wandered the busy streets and museums and the exquisite churches and synagogues of Rome.
That is, we felt welcome enough until the spread of coronavirus shut down the country and forced us all into quarantine. As foreign nationals, we quickly found ourselves “personae non gratae” — unappreciated persons.
Finding little support where we were, we abandoned our plans and came home. We quickly learned as we tried to find housing here, however, not to tell anyone where we were coming from.
No one actually uttered, as they firmly turned us away, “There is no room at the inn.” But we heard it loud and clear just the same.
Of course we all need to be careful about who we come in contact with. Of course we need to take precautions like keeping our distance and limiting gatherings and wearing masks in public.
But we also need to remember to welcome the stranger and love our neighbors.
What better Christmas gift could there be, especially here in the middle of a sultry July?