Luke 2:7 famously reads: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
The word “inn” conjures in our imaginations a Holiday Inn or Motel 6 with the “no vacancy” sign lit. Our youthful bathrobe-wearing nativity plays invariably take it this way. But that’s an anachronistic perception.
Luke does indeed refer to a public inn for hire (such establishments were usually run by Gentiles) in his story of the Good Samaritan with the word pandocheion. But in the nativity story, he uses a different word: kataluma. This word derives from the verb kataluo, from the preposition kata “down” and luo “to loose.” The primary connotation of the verb is “to destroy” (in the sense of tearing something down), but it also can refer to loosing a burden from a pack animal and bringing it down for the night, and thus “to cease from travel, to rest, to seek lodging.” Kataluma is the nominal cognate of that verb. Luke uses the word elsewhere in the story of the Last Supper, where the guestchamber they observe the meal in is a kataluma.
Elder Nelson has an old speech reprinted in the current Ensign in which he takes the view that the kataluma is a caravansary (a rough shelter for people and animals traveling in caravans). That’s a possible reading. But personally I’m influenced by Luke’s usage elsewhere to see it as the guestroom in a house, which would usually be upstairs. (John Welch published a word study of this word, also in the Ensign, in which he took it as a guest room in a private home; I agree with his take.)
Joseph was returning to “his town.” So presumably he did not knock on a stranger’s door; the house where he sought lodging was likely that of a relative. There was no room in the guestchamber because other relatives had arrived earlier. That much is understandable.
A lot of people stop there. But keep in mind the cultural context; hospitality was everything. And back then, just as today, women in well advanced pregnancy tend to be helped and accommodated. To me it’s almost unthinkable that a relative’s wife arriving from a long journey about to give birth would not be attended to by the women, given space in the upper room away from the others, fawned over and comforted and assisted.
Except–the refusal to give up space for Mary makes sense when we remember another part of the cultural context, that she became pregnant before marriage by someone not her husband. We usually don’t think about this aspect of the story, but if we’re serious about reading it as a real account, we have to consider the scandal that was Mary’s pregnancy (The movie “The Nativity Story” starring a young Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary does a pretty good job of teasing this dynamic out of the narrative.) To my eye, there was no room made available for Mary in the guestroom because Joseph’s relatives were offended and scandalized by her pregnancy. This isn’t an essential reading; you don’t have to go that far. That’s just the way I see it.
And therein perhaps lies a lesson for us today. How often do we refuse to give place to our own prodigals, not only in our homes but in our lives? I’m sure Joseph’s relatives thought they were being righteous by shunning Mary. Do we do the same thing when we do not unconditionally welcome our own children or those with whom they are in relationships into our homes? What if your child were gay? What if he had a partner? Is the righteous response to bar them from the family home? Should we tell them there is no room for them in our kataluma?
My daughter has been in a serious relationship with her boyfriend for several years. They are not married. It is a safe bet that they have sex. Yes, yes, I know, the Church does not approve of sex outside the bounds of marriage. So is the appropriate response to shun them? To keep them from entering our home? To turn a cold shoulder to them? God forbid. My daughter (and her boyfriend) will always be warmly welcomed in our home and in our lives. My love for her is both absolute and unconditional. Joseph’s relatives tried a little passive-aggressive shunning of the young girl who shamelessly showed up to their home pregnant, not by Joseph, and by so doing memorialized their reaction in the pages of scripture. And it was not an admirable action on their part. Let us not follow in their footsteps.