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There was no inn at Bethlehem

We were walking to Christmas Midnight Mass when my son insightfully asks, “We’re celebrating Jesus’ birth – right? So why are we having communion and so thinking about his death?”

The question hung with me throughout the Eucharist. At the blessing of the crib, a mistranslation of Luke’s Gospel was read that may be a way in to an answer. We hear “…and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7) Well the original does not say “inn”.

The original translated as “inn” is καταλυμα. This word is used only three times in the New Testament. In Mark 14:14, and Luke 22:11 (which he copies from Mark) it is translated as “guest room”. It is upstairs. [And we are told it is large – plenty of space this time!] There Jesus celebrates the Last Supper, the Eucharist.

Καταλυμα derives from καταλυω – to unharness – hence the translation of “inn” for Luke 2:7. [One could develop a thread about salvation as being unharnessed – for which there was no space at the start of Luke’s story – but for which there was large space as he reaches its conclusion]

A poor, small village like Bethlehem at Jesus’ time would not have had an inn. Nor, as Luke tells the story, would the extended family have provided no hospitality to a very pregnant family member. In most Bethlehem homes (as even still occurs today), animals were kept downstairs, whilst the upper part had work areas, sleeping areas, and, for someone wealthy enough, even a guest room. With no space in the upper guest room – the downstairs space for the animals would have given some privacy.

Luke frames his story with an upper room near the start (Bethlehem), and near the end (the Last Supper, the Eucharist). As I knelt at communion in Luke’s upper room (Luke’s καταλυμα), I held God. God now so small that there is space even within me for this God-made-small we celebrate this day. Transcendence and immanence are not opposites mysteriously united in God. Only a transcendent God can be closer than merely touching. Only the God greater than all can become smaller than all – so that there is nowhere now so small that God cannot find a place there.

“In Mary God has grown small to make us great.”St. Ephrem (d. 373)

This post is a republication of a 2007 reflection

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