And she gave birth to her firstborn son and
wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger,
because there was no place for them in the inn.
Years ago, when I was young and single (and naive), my sister and I decided to take a last-minute trip to New Orleans. Flights were cheap, so we booked two tickets for the weekend. Our next step was to book a hotel room for one night. In the days before Internet and cell phones, everything was done by phone—and you paid for it. My long-distance bill increased by the minute as one hotel after another informed me that they had no rooms available.
Finally, I called the airline to cancel the tickets.
Mary and Joseph did not have the luxury of canceling their trip to Bethlehem. “In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So, Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David” (Luke 2:1-4).
Can you imagine if everyone in the United States was instructed to return to their place of birth to register for a census? Think of the chaos! Airports, hotels, and restaurants would be emptied of staff trying to return to their birth homes and flooded by visitors trying to get to theirs.
It’s no wonder the innkeeper in Bethlehem had no room. But was he really an innkeeper?
Ancient Bethlehem possessed fertile land for harvesting barley and wheat, and the surrounding countryside was ideal for shepherds to graze their sheep and goats. The people who lived there would have had small homes with family stables for their livestock. It’s unlikely that an inn—as we know it—would have existed anywhere in this area. It’s more likely that Joseph took his pregnant wife to his family home, hoping for space in the guest chamber, which was commonly an upper room.
There are two possibilities as to why Mary and Joseph were relegated to the stable. First, Joseph would not have been the only family member returning to Bethlehem for the census. If several others had already crowded into the small living space, the stable may have been the only option left. Second, it would have been inappropriate (scandalous, even) to allow an unmarried man and his pregnant fiancée to sleep together in a guest room.
Whatever the reason, Joseph was not totally turned away. He was given a place out back, away from judgmental eyes, where there was hay to sleep on and where the screams of a woman in labor would be less disturbing. The “innkeeper” made room.
So did my airline. When I called to cancel our plane tickets to New Orleans, the airline offered to find us a hotel room instead. My sister and I were thrilled. We packed our bags and headed to the airport.
We arrived in New Orleans early on a Saturday morning to discover that the room waiting for us was in a seedy, little strip motel near the airport. We thought we could do better. So, with our overnight bags in hand, we headed into the French Quarter. Between shopping and eating, my sister and I inquired about vacant rooms at every hotel we passed, and we stopped at every pay phone along the way to call hotels that were a little farther out. But nothing was available.
As darkness descended, I remember wandering around side streets in search of places that were not listed in the yellow pages. (Boy, am I dating myself!) At one point, my sister pointed to several men and women passed out on a street near an abandoned piano. “That could be us,” she said. She was right. If we didn’t accept the room the airline had booked for us, we might end up sleeping on the street.
A similar fate awaited Joseph and Mary had they not accepted the offer of the stable. Though not ideal, the stable provided the new parents with shelter and an exact location that could easily be found by shepherds in search of the Messiah.
I can’t help but wonder what the “innkeeper” thought when the shepherds showed up praising the child. Did he second-guess his decision to put the couple in the stable? If he had known that Mary was about to give birth to the Messiah, would he have cleared the guest room for her?
Before judging the so-called innkeeper, let’s ask ourselves some similar questions. How often do we turn a blind eye to people in need? How often do we go just one mile when two are required? How often do we give away the damaged goods and keep the best for ourselves? Do we make it a priority to feed the hungry, supply clothes to the naked, look in on the sick, visit someone in prison, extend hospitality, provide shelter, or spend time with the lonely? As Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
I will never again take off for a faraway city without a hotel reservation. However, if someone arrives on my doorstep in need of shelter, I pray I am found to be not only willing, but also eager to give them the guest room and a warm blanket.
THE SONG THAT COMES TO MIND is Make Room by Casting Crowns with Matt Maher.
Lyrics: “Is there room in your heart for God to write his story?”