“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” – Luke 2:7
Luke emphasizes that the only shelter for the Holy Family was the place where the animals lived. Since Mary was about to give birth, there was no time to search for better accommodations, and, as the Scripture informs us, “there was no room for them in the inn.” Venerable Fulton Sheen – the well-known archbishop from New York and one of the pioneers of early television – commented that the words “there was no room for them in the inn” may be the saddest words in the whole Bible. He draws a relationship between these words and those of John’s Prologue that the Son of God “came to his own and his own received him not” (John 1:11). You could say that what is stressed here is a lack of hospitality.
Yet, perhaps there is another interpretation. The word in the original Greek, translated here as “inn,” is not actually the formal word for “inn,” but rather for “guest room.” Thus, instead of seeing the Holy Family as coming to an inn with various rooms, we can imagine them seeking shelter in a large guest room of a private residence. The guest room seems to be full – there is not enough room for them, especially private enough for a woman to deliver a child.
Now a brief aside about Judean homes from this time period. They usually consisted of an area near the door, often with a dirt floor, where the family’s animals were kept at night so they wouldn’t be stolen or preyed upon, and also so their body heat could help warm the house on cool evenings. The family lived and slept in a raised part of the same room set back from the door. The guest room was usually upstairs or just off the family’s room. Typically the lower area near the door had a manger from which the animals ate and drank.
When we take all of this into consideration, and we add that hospitality was considered a fundamental value of Jewish culture, we can consider the following interpretation: Since there wasn’t enough space in the guest room, and because of Mary’s physical state, the owners of this house “made room” for the Holy Family in the area by the front door. It was private there. It was warm there. And their own room was nearby in case anything was needed. The woman of the house may have acted as a midwife to Mary. These people, usually remembered for their lack of hospitality, may have been two of the most welcoming people in history.
Can I imitate the hospitality of the homeowners in this passage? Can I welcome the Lord who “stands at our door and knocks” (Rev. 3:20) and who desires to “dwell among us” (John 1:14). Can I “make room” for Jesus in my life, like the homeowners “made room” for Jesus to be born? It’s okay that I’m busy – there wasn’t enough space in the guest room after all. But can I “make room”? Room for prayer, for the Sacraments, for checking in on my parents and siblings, for being present to my wife and children, for giving my time and treasure to the poor?
Catholic philosopher, humanitarian, and founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, once said that to love is to help another to see their Belovedness. Love isn’t so much about doing things as it is about revealing to someone their true identity and value. And that begins with welcoming them, with “making room” for them, like the “inn keepers” some 2000 years ago did for the Holy Family.