When is ‘an inn’ not ‘an inn’?

εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo)
“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”

“ … and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and “… and laid (ἀνέκλινεν, aneklinen) him in a manger (ἐν φάτνη, en phatne), because there was no room for them in the inn (ἐν τῷ καταλύματι, en to katalumati).”

θεωρέω (theoreo)
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)

For many reasons the account of Jesus’ birth, as recorded by the Evangelist Saint Luke, is the sine qua non of Scripture at this time of year. Many who will participate in the Christmas Mass During the Night will hear this familiar proclamation and others who particiate earlier or tomorrow will hear at different Gospel proclamation and wonder, ‘what about the stable and manger’? Saint Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is deeply engrained in the Christian psyche and courtesy of the tradition most probably begun by Saint Francis of Assisi and the first ‘Nativity Scene,’ images of the Christmas characters are well known to many who will celebrate the Christmas mysteries. But this familiarity does pose a unique challenge, namely, a thought or an attitude ‘Oh, I know this one ...’ and then drift off in a distracted thought or two. Knowing and being familiar with a Gospel episode is good — AND (not but!) — in grace, we also must permit ourselves to be drawn to a deeper consideration of the inspired Word of God.

Various scholars have noted that the evangelist Saint Luke employed 2 distinct Greek words in the Gospel when it came to “an inn.” In the parable popularly termed The Good Samaritan, the man who fell among robbers was brought to “an inn.” “Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn (εἰς πανδοχεῖον, eis pandocheiov) and cared for him. An inn (πανδοχεῖον) in the biblical era served multiple functions. It was a place where hospitality was offered to all people but particularly travelers and those not familiar with the area. An inn (πανδοχεῖον) also served as a ‘stopping place’ where one could find lodging for a period of time, similar to our experiences of B&B’s (Bed and Breakfasts). While an inn (πανδοχεῖον) would not be one’s permanent place of living, there was no stipulation on the amount of time one could stay, provided one could pay for the accommodations. Finally, as an extension of hospitality [biblical hospitality, similar to biblical mercy, is an act providing all the minimal necessities needed for life], an inn (πανδοχεῖον) could serve as a place of healing and recuperation, somewhat similar to our experience of a hospital. In the parable, the inn (πανδοχεῖον) served as a place for healing the victim’s wounds and enabling him to become whole once again because the Good Samaritan and innkeeper intervened on his behalf. As far as Saint Luke’s inspired writing of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, however, Mary and Joseph do not stop at an inn (πανδοχεῖον). The ‘inn’ that has no room is not an inn (πανδοχεῖον) but more precisely a room (κατάλυμα, kataluma).

True, there is good scholarly support to translate κατάλυμα (kataluma) as “inn” but it is ‘an inn’ with a slightly different sense than πανδοχεῖον (pandocheion). When κατάλυμα (kataluma) is translated as a type of lodging space, the emphasis is decidedly temporary and the space is not one’s own. Hence in Greek antiquity, κατάλυμα (kataluma) more often referred to a ‘dining-room’ or a ‘guest room.’ Elsewhere in the Gospel, Luke used the term κατάλυμα (kataluma) to describe the place of the Last Supper (as did the evangelist Saint Mark) “... and say to the master of the house, ‘The teacher says to you, “Where is the guest room (κατάλυμα, kataluma) where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ (Luke 22:11) Here, the ‘room’ is both temporary (Jesus and His ‘guests’ will only be there for a short period of time) and used as an eating place. In this way, the dual understanding of κατάλυμα (kataluma) is found throughout the pages of the Old Testament. In 1 Samuel, for example, Samuel invites Saul into a room of guests, seats him at the head and then has food brought to them, they lodged there for the night and then went on their way the next day (1 Samuel 9:21-27). Again the emphasis appears to favor eating in a temporary space. If resting, sleeping or lodging happens it will be for a short time period.

So, how do the ‘dots connect’ when all of this is applied to Mary and Joseph? Permit an additional examination of κατάλυμα (kataluma). As a Greek verb, καταλύω (kataluo) conveys a sense of ‘stopping an action,’ ‘halting progress,’ or ‘interrupting - particularly when it comes to a journey.’ Even when using the translations ‘stopping, halting, or interrupting’ the original sense of the Greek καταλύω (kataluo) is that these actions are not final. Hence, stopping will be accompanied by re-starting; halting will be complemented by continuing and interrupting will eventually give way to an ongoing journey. As far as Saint Luke is concerned, the verb καταλύω (kataluo) and the noun (κατάλυμα kataluma) offer a penetrating insight into Jesus’ birth.

Mary and Joseph are no doubt on a journey, a journey the Sacred Text states is to register. But that journey is interrupted (καταλύω kataluo) by the impending birth of Jesus Who is “Savior” (Luke 2:11) and “Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). It makes sense to stop and nature will even demand that Mary stops to give birth. Yet while “no room for them in the inn” seems inhospitable, cold, callous and downright rude, it does make sense in light of this study. Mary and Joseph cannot interrupt their journey at and in this inn (κατάλυμα kataluma) for lodging because Mary’s Son IS rest, comfort and refreshment (consider Psalm 95, Hebrews 4:1-11 and Matthew 11:25-30). Mary and Joseph cannot halt their journey at and in this inn (κατάλυμα kataluma) because Jesus is not a temporary guest. He is the permanent Host Who invites all to His Table to be reconciled to His Father and one another (the theme of Table Fellowship so abundant in the Gospel according to Saint Luke). Mary and Joseph cannot stop at and in this inn (κατάλυμα kataluma) to eat food, because Mary’s Son IS the “Bread of Life” (John 6) a point intensified by the fact that once Jesus is born He is placed in a feeding trough, a vessel that provides food for all the animals (see a previous year’s reflection).

We can rejoice this Christmas that there was “no room in the inn.” While our lives will be interrupted more times than we can count, many of which are beyond control, we do have control over where we will ‘stay’ when life gets interrupted. Will I seek a place that offers me a ‘quick fix’ of temporary pleasure so that I can feel good? Will I seek the ‘junk food’ of sin and selfishness that judges and objectifies others so that I feel good about myself? Hopefully the interruption in life that brings you to a Church this Christmas will be the Encounter with Jesus, the Lord of Life and Love Who promises - with His own life - an eternal, permanent love grounded in His Real Presence no longer in a feeding trough in Bethlehem but in the very Sacrament of Himself so mind-bogglingly made available to us as His ultimate Christmas gift to each of us!