One scene in the nativity story that’s beloved of the Christmas play writers is the one in which Mary and Joseph tramp from inn to inn asking, “Do you have any room?” until finding their way out of the cold into the shelter of the stable:
She gave birth to her first-born, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger – there was no room for them to stay in the inn.
It is a shocking image, an expectant couple made homeless by the casual brutality of officialdom, and one which has spawned thousands of sermons which speak of Christ in solidarity with the least and the lowest. I’ve preached some of them myself, and I’m not going to deny the truth they contain.
Suppose, though, that our traditional reading of this verse is mistaken. Suppose that where we read “inn” we ought to read “guest room”, which is how Luke clearly intends the same word (kataluma) in Luke 22:11 What then?
Joseph goes to Bethlehem, the city of his ancestors, with his betrothed and plans to do what anyone would do in his circumstances – go and stay with a member of his family. By custom, hospitality – especially to family – was a sacred duty. Surely here in the family town there’d be someone who could put them up?
But no. No room. “The house is full Joseph. You understand – I’d help if I could.” Read this way the Christian gospel begins, not with the meaningless apologies of a hotelier who’s overbooked, but with the embarassment of a family turning away one of their own. As at the end, so at the beginning: Christ is rejected by those who should most gladly receive him.
And I wonder. In the rush to prepare for Christmas, to get the house ready, to have all the cards sent in time, to have the best possible sermons for the season – do we who should receive him with greatest gladness end up by rejecting him all over again?