Margins of Miraculous

MARGINS OF MIRACULOUS – Bethlehem by: Shawn Blythe

Had we lived in Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, it is quite likely we would have missed the entire event—or at least its significance. The ongoing census made Bethlehem a busy place, with travelers trying to meet basic needs for food and shelter. The birth—or death—of any single individual would not have distracted most people from more immediate concerns related to hungry children, tired spouses, and a place to spend the night.

Mary and Joseph were two weary travelers lost in a crowd of weary travelers. We envision them approaching an inn—only to be turned away—after which Mary immediately gives birth in a stable around back; yet the scriptures provide no such clarity. We only know for sure that the couple traveled to Bethlehem for the census, arrived safely, and “while they were there,” Mary gave birth.

Traveling alone would have been unwise, and certainly unsafe, so we might surmise they must have been accompanied to Bethlehem by fellow travelers. Perhaps they had made arrangements to stay with distant relatives, or with a friend’s family. Jesus’ birth could have occurred minutes, hours, or even days after their arrival. We really don’t know.

What we do know is that it was unlikely Mary and Joseph were turned away from an “inn”—as we understand the concept today. Childhood visions of an innkeeper closing the door to them fade quickly when we discover no such person exists in the scriptural record. In fact, one could argue that there was hardly an inn.

The term in Luke 2 that is translated as “inn” is the word “kataluma.” Its actual meaning is closer to “a place to stay” or “guestroom.” Inns, as we know them, likely did exist, for Luke used a very different word in his explanation of the place where the Samaritan left the injured man for recovery. In Luke 10, that place is described as “pandocheion,” which means something closer to “all received.”

So, it is much more likely that the accommodation referenced in the story of Jesus’ birth is best described as a guest house or room, which simply had no space to hold additional travelers; however, the manger would have been nearby. Animals—valuable commodities—were kept very close to the house, in a common area immediately outside the sheltered living quarters. The fact that there was no space in the residence suggests that it was full of people; therefore, the couple would not have been alone, and Mary probably had some assistance during her labor.

I often think of these first neighbors of the Savior. They could have been fellow travelers from the Nazareth area.  Alternatively, they could have come from other regions, perhaps connected to Mary and Joseph only by a common need to reach their ancestral home for the census. Regardless, a crying baby was likely not anyone’s first choice for a night of peace and quiet. It would not have made matters any better when the shepherds trudged in later that night, babbling on about angelic beings and a message from God. Whether or not the shepherds’ story was believable, surely it could wait until a more acceptable hour!

But of course, we are judging them because we know the outcome. We know the identity of the Child. We know the shepherds told the truth. We know the magi were coming. We know Simeon waited in Jerusalem to greet the Lord’s Christ.

The neighbors didn’t know any of this. They were oblivious—just like us, as we make our way through another day. We encounter circumstances or people, and we position them in our lives as facilitators or roadblocks to our objectives. We categorize and fit them into nice boxes that complement our childlike understanding of our world. What wonders have we missed? What glories have we overlooked because we were so busy surviving and thriving in this world that we have forgotten we are not of this world?

That there was no space in the guesthouse for Christ on the day of his birth is poignant enough. But it is even more sobering to think of the neighbors who were so close to the Savior—but never knew it, and perhaps never crossed paths with Him again.

It is interesting to note that the Greek word “kataluma” is only used twice in the entire New Testament.  Once to describe the place in which there was no space for Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:7) and the second time to describe the upper room (Mark 14:14, Luke 22:11). It seems somewhat fitting to me that the beginning and end of Jesus’ life would be associated with guest accommodations. He was, as we should be, transient in this world. We are temporary sojourners, visitors in a place that should not define us. 

Like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, we are just passing through. But as we are passing, we should take notice of our fellow travelers, take care of our neighbors, take time to consider the stories of God’s message, and observe the miracles around us—whether we have made room for them or not.