A Catholic Monthly Magazine

No Room at the Inn

by Joy Cowley

The children were talking in class about the birth of Jesus. What did the angels look like? How many animals were in the stable? The only negative character in the story was the landlord of the inn. “He was mean!” a boy said.

Really? I wondered why the world’s most beautiful story had to have a villain. Who was the innkeeper? Man or woman? St Luke doesn’t tell us. Were Joseph and Mary actually turned away?

Inn is probably a respectable name for what would have been a largish one-roomed dwelling where travellers could spread some straw on the floor to sleep after a surfeit of wine.

This was census time, so the place would be crowded and noisy, people elbow to elbow on the floor and rooftop. It was no place for a young woman about to give birth.

What we understand to be a stable was probably a cave or mud-brick shelter for the innkeeper’s animals, although there is no mention of animals in scripture. The ox and the ass were medieval additions.

It’s the word ‘manger,’ an animal feeding place, that suggests there could have been a donkey, maybe a goat and a few sheep. If so, they would probably have been cleared out to make room for Mary and Joseph.

So, was the innkeeper mean or compassionate? 

And why do we want to judge the Christmas story this way?

I’m still doing it. The advertising started in November and I complained about the commercial hijacking of Christmas. For me, the sprigs of holly and tinsel represented tension, greed and credit card debt. Behind the beard, Santa Claus was bogus, the agent for profit on one hand, poverty and waste on the other.

Nativity, Sandro Botticelli,
c. 1473

I had become sour about what I called the secularisation of Christmas, although the word ‘secular’ also felt false. I didn’t see families coming together, holidays planned. I didn’t count the children who were looking at the horizon with shining eyes, or the number of Christmas cakes fragrant in ovens. It didn’t occur to me that most of those presents were being chosen with love.

Then I heard that boy say the innkeeper was mean. Yep. That went home. It wasn’t the innkeeper who was mean, it was me. I was the grumpy one who had no room in the inn of my thinking. Floor and roof were covered with negative thoughts, and it was time for me to go to the stable.

So, Terry and I will celebrate Christmas as we’ve always done. I’ll sing carols in church and we’ll kneel before the infant who has claimed our lives.

Elsewhere, shops will be busy and smiling staff will be wearing Santa hats or plastic reindeer horns. In homes, children get sent to bed so that presents can be wrapped and put under the tree. Some child will have left out a can of soft drink for Santa. Some dad will be wondering how he’ll wrap his daughter’s first two-wheeler.

And where is baby Jesus in all of this?

He is everywhere. Absolutely everywhere!   

This article was originally published in CathNews NZ Pacific in December 2017. It is used with permission.

Tagged as: , ,

Comments are closed.