’ Away In The Manger’

Mary and Joseph at the InnAs we celebrate His presence with us in the Eucharist, our children offer us the story of His birth.  By representing the characters in the drama, our children reenact the event and welcome us into the story. 

A character I find intriguing is the innkeeper, often cast as a hard-hearted scowling old man who shoos Joseph and Mary off to a dingy stable.  Now, I don’t know much about the history of Christmas pageants but I do know that no such character appears in the Gospel; no innkeeper and certainly no dialogue between him and Joseph and Mary.  He’s probably the hybrid figment of ancient sermons by pious church fathers and the artistic imaginations of medieval troubadours.  He’s so well presented that we actually think of the innkeeper as a matter of fact.  Personally, I think we have given this fictitious character an undeserved bad rap that feeds dangerous misconceptions about how Jesus was received by His contemporaries.     

The innkeeper’s reputation stems from a single, oblique reference in the Gospel. The verse says that Mary wrapped her newborn baby in swaddling clothes “and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” Luke 2:7. From this, Christians down through the centuries have inferred that Jesus was rejected at birth.

The reality is probably much different. The “inn” was more than likely a guest room in the home of one of Joseph’s relatives since his family was from Bethlehem. If that room was already occupied, the host, respectful of Mary’s condition and her need for privacy, would have made room for Joseph and Mary within his own living quarters by cleaning up the animals feeding trough [manger] to serve as a crib for the soon to be born child.

Details are important because the birth narrative is rich with symbolism. The early commentators focus on the modest circumstances as suggesting that God humbled himself to join the commonest of people. Somehow, later generations conjured a fictitious innkeeper and made him into something of a villain presenting a potentially misleading implication into the story.

A professor of New Testament at Boston College sees it like this “It’s kind of a ‘gotcha’ moment to recognize there is no innkeeper or reason to castigate an innkeeper, but that’s what we tend to do. It’s an easy thing to cast judgment on this figure, [but] anything that gives us an out from examining ourselves first is not a good thing in the spiritual life. ... We need to consider instead, how hospitable have we been?”

The appearance of an innkeeper begs the question of who welcomed Jesus and who rejected him. Unfortunately, some Christian writers and preachers have presumed a rude innkeeper who foreshadows Jesus’ rejection by the religious authorities on the eve of his death. We need to be careful not to let innkeeper legends perpetuate harmful stereotypes about hostility toward Jesus or insensitivity to the plight of a pregnant woman.

The message of “no room…in the inn” is not that ‘Bethlehem did not open its heart.’ Rather, by providing the manger, the message is: ‘Bethlehem opened its heart. Are we willing to do the same?’

This year, let’s look at the elusive innkeeper as a person just like us who welcomes all that Jesus represents and provides a place for Him, be it ever so humble.  In some respects, we’re not too different from those folks at Bethlehem who represented the 99 percent of a population oppressed by Roman imperial rule. They provided hospitality for the newborn Jesus, and that included the innkeeper as well the shepherds. The prospect of an alternative Lord who would bring a new meaning to peace intrigued them. 

At Bethlehem, Jesus came to His own and His own received Him!  At Christmas let us imitate the hospitality of an anonymous householder as we share in the news that “Christ is Born!”

Blessings at Christmas

Fr +Timothy

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