Posted by on December 25, 2021

by Kenneth Padley on Christmas Eve 2021 at St Michael’s St Albans Luke 2.1-7

I was hopeless at drama when I was in school. The furthest I ever got in the nativity play was the part of the inn-keeper. I was aged about eight and the costume was an itchy brown dressing gown which my father had obtained from one of the darker recesses of the 1970s. With a stretch of the imagination, I might just have passed as a landlord from the ancient near east.

My role as an inn-keeper in that nativity play was a simple one: I had to pretend to open a door on the stage in response to the frantic knocking of Joseph, before refusing the holy couple lodging because my inn was full. However, the couple were persistent and I had an outhouse round the back. It was something like that – you get the picture. We’ve seen it a hundred times. The image in our minds from countless nativity plays is of a heavily pregnant Mary arriving with haste in a town that is overcrowded with visitors who have come for the census. Often Mary is so near-term that she is borne on a donkey and the couple are so desperate to find lodgings before nightfall that they take the spare space in a cattle shed.

But it’s all smoke and mirrors. There is no sense of haste nor of rejection in the text we have just heard. The load-bearing clause in this misunderstanding is that final line in tonight’s gospel: ‘because there was no room for them in the inn’ – Luke chapter 2 verse 7. The sense that the holy couple sought hasty shelter in a commercial hostelry hangs entirely on that word ‘inn’. Now the translation ‘inn’ goes back to the very first printed English bibles in the sixteenth century. However, I am told that Bethlehem would not have had inns as we understand them. Commercial lodgings for travelers would have been rare in settlements. Back then, they were only found at remote points on trade routes – in other words, where there were no normal houses in which a visitor might stay.

There is an example of such an inn later in Luke’s gospel when Jesus tells a story about a man who was beaten up on the dangerous and isolated road from Jerusalem to Jericho. In that parable, help comes from the Good Samaritan who, moved with pity, binds up the man’s wounds and takes him to an inn. This is a genuine inn, a caravanserai, a common travelers’ lodge. However, the Greek word for inn used in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, pandocheion, is not the same as the word which Luke uses in his narrative of Jesus’ birth, not the same as the as that word which the English tradition has consistently mistranslated as ‘inn’.

In the infancy narrative we have just heard, Luke 2.7, reference is not a pandocheion, but a kataluma And a kataluma is not an ‘inn’. It is a guest room, a guest room in a normal house.  

What is being envisaged in Luke chapter 2 is a traditional form of hospitality that was once common across the near east. It was a cultural expectation that visitors were welcomed and cared for. Residents would put up even strangers in their guest room, their kataluma. For many families, their guest room might have been their only room, the family space where everyone bedded down for the night.

This is the context which Luke is describing in his second chapter. There is no sense that Mary and Joseph had arrived in undue haste and certainly no reference to a donkey. The implication is that they were staying for a while with a family in the town. The kataluma was quite possibly a mezzanine floor in a house which had just a single room. The resident family would have been there. And they had welcomed in two scruffy northerners to share their space, as societal convention dictated. Things must have been a bit squishy, and even more so once the woman needed to give birth. So Mary took her baby down from the mezzanine to the ground floor, the place where the family kept their livestock overnight for security and warmth.   

Why does all of this matter? Let me offer you three reflections by way of seasonal gift.

Firstly, the interpretation I have been outlining about the guest room serves to underline the poverty of the holy family. They weren’t looking to stay in the Bethlehem Travel Lodge. There probably wasn’t one and they may not have been able to afford it if there was. Rather, Mary and Joseph were crashed on the floor of a stranger. We are being reminded here of what God does for us. He was born as a migrant in the home of an unknown family with parents who had nothing – so little that the best crib they could manage was the cattle trough in the basement. We are being reminded here that it is not wealth nor cleverness that redeems us, but God who stoops down in order to raise us up to the life of heaven. And he stoops so low that there is nobody beyond his redemption, no context to which he will not go.

My second take-home from Luke’s nativity is to do with the Church’s mission. The theologian Paula Gooder observes that, ‘if there was an inn, someone refused Jesus room; if it was just a guest room, no one refused him room – he just didn’t quite fit in.’ Paula Gooder finds profound significance in this distinction. She continues, ‘So often we assume that people’s lack of acceptance of Jesus… is deliberate, thought through and clearly stated. The reality is that (more often than not) a refusal of Jesus is not thought through – he just doesn’t quite fit into our lives… most often, now as then, there simply isn’t quite space for him.’[1]

If you are making room for the baby tonight and want to explore further where he fits in, I encourage you to catch me as you leave or send me an email. In the new year we will be running Exploring Christianity discussion groups. These are an opportunity to reflect on the basic building blocks of Christianity and how they might fit together. There will be a group for adults on Sunday mornings and another for teenagers on Monday after school.

The third and final point I want to draw from that Bethlehem guest room is about our response in worship to God’s love in the baby Jesus. At the other end of Luke’s gospel, on the day before he dies, Jesus sends his disciples into Jerusalem to find a place for them to eat the Passover meal. They are directed to a guest room where they are told to make preparations. Would it surprise you to learn that that guest room is the only other context in the entire New Testament in which we read the word kataluma – that word on which our reflections have been turning?

In birth, the guest room was too crowded for the tiny baby. Before death, Jesus gathered in another guest room as Lord and host for his Last Supper. That Last Supper was the meal which instituted this meal, the sacrament of spiritual encounter with Christ’s risen presence. Whatever our doubts and our busyness, our failure to make space during the year which is passing, now tonight, in the guest room which is this holy and ancient place – probably the oldest site of known Christian activity in the British Isles – the baby and the man, the incarnate saviour, seeks a guest room in your heart.

[1] Gooder, Journey to the Manger, 105-06.

Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons