Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

-Mary Oliver

Photo by Gareth Harper on Unsplash.comThe booster and flu shots I had yesterday knocked me sideways so I spent much of the day snuggled under a blanket on the couch, shivering and trying to resist the temptation to doom scroll the news on my phone. I decided instead to re-read all the children’s Christmas books we have in the house. The picture book variety. Over and over again, I saw images of the manger from Luke’s version of the nativity story. The manger, which is in the text. And the stable, the animals and the cold-hearted inn-keeper – which are not anywhere in the text.

Like thousands of others, Mary and Joseph were internally displaced people, forced to move at the whim of an occupying force that had a deep love of counting things. Like thousands of others, they were vulnerable to Rome’s caprice. Like thousands of others, they relied on the hospitality of extended family to buffer the effects of Rome’s caprice. We know how the story goes: when the couple got to Bethlehem, there was no room for them in the “inn.” We hear the English word inn and our imaginations supply the picture of an ancient motel, complete with innkeeper. Much like the inn and inn keeper found later in the book of Luke, in the story of the good Samaritan.

But the author of Luke uses a different word here in the nativity story. Kataluma – can be translated as inn, but it more often referred to the hut or “upper room” built on the roof of some of the one-story, one-room houses common in that time and place. Katalumas were used to offer hospitality. And sometimes they were rented out. Imagine an ancient air bnb. It was this room, this kataluma, on the roof of a home probably belonging to one of Joseph’s relatives, that was too full for Mary and Joseph. So, instead of being shown to the room on the roof, the expectant couple settled down -- not outside, around back in an imaginary stable. Not in the gutter or a cave. But inside, down below with the rest of the family. Jesus was born as generations of his ancestors would have been, in the warmth of extended family. In an ordinary place, among ordinary people, receiving the tender care and hospitality of that community. In the kind of house with a central area where the very few animals owned by each family were brought in at night for warmth and security.

This is not a story of inhospitality. “Mary and Joseph found shelter in the kindness of people, presumably Joseph’s kin in his traditional homeland of Bethlehem. It is a story of what people under occupation have been doing for millennia: Looking after each other.” Now that is a story I want to sing. Of the extraordinariness and stubborn persistence of ordinary human kindness. Of hope that endures because God is present in everyday spaces.

God came uniquely in Jesus to teach us how to look and see and love the holy in each other, in our neighbor, in the stranger – in everyone.

A blessed, joyful Christmas to each and all of you.