“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)
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!