We can only imagine Joseph’s dismay at finding no room in Bethlehem. Having to sleep in the stable, and with a baby on the way! But it wasn’t because the infamous misused innkeeper, anonymous and ever accused, was inhospitable. But because every home and inn was already full.
In Jewish culture, it would have been a breach of etiquette to purposely leave weary travelers, especially one in Mary’s state, out on the street.
Hospitality was a sacred duty. Travel was slow and tedious. And often dangerous. As we see in Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan, who helped a man after he’d been attacked by bandits.
It was important to give people a safe place to spend the night. Some Rabbis even suggested having four doors to a house, for welcoming travelers from all directions. And people were to hang a curtain over the door to show they still had room!
In fact, we find an interesting saying in the Jewish Talmud (one of the central texts of Rabbinic Judaism) about hospitality. One that I really like!
And that’s why they placed hostels along seldom-traveled roads.
Special hostels with unfurnished rooms which opened around a large central courtyard used for beasts and carriages. It was too dangerous to spend the night alone out on the road.
While lodging at these was free, an ‘innkeeper’, usually a foreigner, sold necessities: wine, olives, oil, dates, figs, and other things necessary to travelers. The Good Samaritan possibly took the injured man he found along the road to one of these hostels.
But later in Roman times, actual inns opened along the highways.
Featuring rooms to rent and public entertainment, and typically with locusts on the menu. And you could take your pick, pickled or fried with honey, then wash them down with Babylonian or Median beer, Egyptian drink (whatever that was), or homemade wine or cider.
These public houses were places of wild noise and riotous living, where travelers not only wasted their earnings on games of chance, but risked arrest by Herod’s secret police. If perchance they unwisely expressed any wrong opinions. Most Jews probably preferred the hostels as the safer of the two.
In any case, travel was not undertaken lightly.
And one always hoped to find a safe refuge before nightfall. Some door open, someone with room. But even as more lodging became available, travel remained dangerous. So Jewish custom required people to open their homes to travelers.
But there was no room at the inn for the Christ child’s birth.
Following the emperor’s command, everyone returned to their hometown for census registration, Luke 2. All of Israel, indeed all the world, was on the move. Every place was full. The town was hopping, filled with busy, rushing people.
And isn’t this often a picture of our lives?
Full of many things that keep us busy. Some necessary, like keeping laws and paying taxes. Or going to work and cleaning house. But often full of futile, useless activity. Things that really don’t count for much. Things that we use, perhaps, to fill otherwise empty and unfulfilled lives?
And sadly, this seems to occur even more at Christmas time. People everywhere rush and shop, trying to find that perfect gift, or create the best Christmas ever.
But I wonder, will all our bustle and rushing, do we pause to remember that best Christmas of over 2000 years ago?
Many of us will be traveling too, this Christmas. How awful to find no place to stay. To show up at the Inn of the Fried Locusts and find the “Full” sign hanging out front. Mediterranean winters are far too cold to spend the night in a car. Or worse yet, lying out in the open next to a donkey.
Yet it would be even worse to hang this sign at the door of my heart: No room for the King.
“My life is too busy. My mind too preoccupied. My heart caught up with other things. Try again next year.”
My prayer this Christmas is to keep life, and its celebrations, simple. Simple enough to leave space, time, and peace of mind for focusing on the things that really count. Without getting caught up in busy rushing that brings weariness and dissatisfaction.