This Christmas season my heart is a jumble of so many thoughts about Mary. I've spent the last year writing about her, dreaming about her, thinking about her, and pondering on all the women and men she would have known in mortality. The more I learn about her the more astounded I am by the woman she was.
Yet, there is something small I learned this year as I was studying Mary that really impressed me. It has to do with the story of the Nativity. In Luke 2: 6-7 it reads:
It is the word that is translated as "inn" that interested me. The word in Greek is "kataluma" and it has several meanings and usages including, " an inn, a lodging place, an eating room, and a dining room" (source). This means that the "inn" may have referred to a public lodging house, but it also could have been a guestroom in a private residence. In fact, many house did have a guestroom, which often was the upper room of the house. This was the room of the house that was literally above the rest of the house and was usually reserved for guests or important meetings.
Most interestingly, is that the ONLY other place that the word "kataluma" is used in the New Testament is to refer to the "upper room" that Jesus and His apostles met in for the Last Supper. In Mark 14: 14 (and also in Luke 22:11) the word "kataluma" is used when Jesus instructs the apostles to secure a room for the passover. It reads,
"13 And he sendeth forth two of his disciples, and saith unto them, Go ye into the city, and there shall meet you a man bearing a pitcher of water: follow him.14 And wheresoever he shall go in, say ye to the goodman of the house, The Master saith, Where is the guestchamber [kataluma], where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?
In this usage "kataluma" is clearly the guestroom of the house, which makes me suspect that the same was probably true of the "kataluma" where there was no room for Mary and Joseph.
The bedrooms and living quarters (including the guestroom or "kataluma") would have been on the upper levels. The kitchen was often outside and the bottom floor of the house (what in this picture is the stone archway) would have been something similar to our modern day garages, where things would have been stored. Instead of a car inside though, it would have been the donkey and the cart. Other animals, like chickens, sheep, and goats would also have been kept on this lower level of the house.
It is interesting when we look at New Testament house like this, and remember that Joseph would have had a lot of family in (and traveling to) Bethlehem, how our idea of Mary and Joseph rushing through crowded streets trying to find a place to stay might not be exactly correct. First of all the text tells us that "while they were there" Mary went into labor, which makes it sound like they had been in Bethlehem for awhile, not rushing to find a place to stay.
Second, I think given the culture of the time it makes more sense to think that Mary and Joseph, who probably would have made the 67 mile trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the company of family, were welcomed into the home of one of Joseph's relatives rather than a public house. Then perhaps, because the house was overflowing with extended family, there was no room for them in the "kataluma", they were obliged to sleep in the lower level of the house, with the animals. We might even speculate that Joseph's relatives could have been trying to give Mary more privacy by having her labor and birth in the "stable", where she would have had much more room to move around than else where in the crowded house.
It is impossible for us to know what really happened the night Jesus was born but I like this version of the Nativity much better than I do the way we traditionally tell it. Traditionally we make it sound like the Inn Keeper (who isn't mentioned in the text) was a bad guy who forced a pregnant woman to give birth in a degrading and desperate situation.
It changes things for me when I think about Mary giving birth to baby Jesus in a home, surrounded by family and people to give her support. She still would have given birth in less than ideal conditions and in very humble circumstances, but thinking of it this way helps me imagine what an incredible, beautiful birth it must have been to witness.
Regardless of where Jesus was actually born it still impresses me that the only two places the word "kataluma" is used in the New Testament are in the stories of the preparation for Jesus's birth and in the story of Jesus's preparation for the sacrament.
There was no place for Him in the "kataluma" when He was born. Yet, thirty-three years later it would be in a "kataluma" where He would first institute the sacred work of the sacrament-- the emblems of His body and His blood that make it possible for us to be re-born into God's kingdom.
I'm still trying to get my mind and heart around what exactly that means. But somehow that word "kataluma" links the event of Christ's birth to the event of the sacrament, atonement and resurrection-- two miraculous birth stories. And it reminds me that this Christmas season is celebrating the birth of the One perfect man, the One whose life made all lives worth living. The One, who through His birth, His death, and His re-birth, made it possible for us to never die... and that is definitely worth celebrating.