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At this time of year, one character in the Nativity story is either totally overlooked or vilified. That person is the innkeeper. He is never mentioned by name or profession. Quite frankly, he may have never even known there was a very pregnant girl and her husband looking for a room. His only mention is in Luke chapter 2, verse 7, quoted here from the King James version:
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.
So who was this mysterious innkeeper? We can assume it was a man, because woman were not allowed to own property. He was married and had a family, because having a family was normal and expected. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the innkeeper, nothing spectacular, nothing special. And the Inn was an ordinary, small town Inn. They probably served meals and drinks to both guests and anyone else. Instead of a garage they had a stable and would house horses, camels, donkeys and other working animals for a fee. They probably had chickens and a cow and their own donkey or horse. They would not have raised all their own food, but would have gotten much of their provisions from the local markets and farms, because Bethlehem was lacking in farmland. They probably had their own fig tree and a few other fruit trees in their courtyard. Their water would have been brought in daily from the local well.
Being an innkeeper is a daunting task on even the slowest day. From cooking breakfasts to cleaning rooms, basic shopping and maintenance, yard work, activity planning and problem solving, an innkeeper's day is full from dawn to dusk, and then some. Now add a local convention, wedding, or other event that needs lots of lodging rooms to a small town and you get total chaos. The closest comparison up here in Vermont would be the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend during foliage, when there is rarely an empty room. Now imagine those crowds of people having to stay possibly for weeks until they were counted and allowed to go back to their homes and businesses. This is the scene in Bethlehem the year Jesus was born.
When Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem that year, everyone who was related in any way to the House of David (Luke 2:1-4) had to go to Bethlehem for a census. This wasn't like today's census, where you fill out a form and, if you forget, someone will happily knock on your door and ask you questions. This was a "show up here or go to jail" event during which the Roman soldiers were more than happy to enforce the "go to jail" part. So all of a sudden, this sleepy little town is overrun with people looking for lodging, and there were not enough rooms to go around. We don't even know if there was more than one Inn in Bethlehem during this period. All we know is that somehow, some kindly person, sent Mary and Joseph to the stable because at least it was warm and Mary could rest a bit.
I can imagine being that innkeeper. Its late at night. You're full to the brim with guests and their animals. You're hoping you have enough food for breakfast, because you know the market will be out of something you need. You're exhausted and just want to go to bed when all of a sudden there's a knock on the door. So you answer it, and there's a young, extremely pregnant couple. What do you do? You can't shove them into a room with other guests - You're probably already done that. You can't let them sleep in the common room, because its full already with people willing to sleep on the floor as was the custom back then. You certainly aren't giving up your bed, so where do you put them? You send them to the stable, where they can sleep with their donkey.
Now this wasn't as strange then as it would be now. Shepherds and grooms were accustomed to sleeping with the animals if only to protect the animals and their packs from thieves. Even today at state fairs you can see people curled up on a hay bale or two taking a nap beside their animals between showings. Grooms also had to unpack and brush down the animals, get their food and water, and care for them. Horses in particular would be calmer with a known handler. So Mary and Joseph probably weren't totally alone when she went into labor, but we don't know for sure. All we know from the story is that Mother and Son were both happy and healthy after the birth, Joseph was there through it all, and things got cleaned up fast enough for Mary to receive her first guests just hours after Jesus was born.
And what about the poor Innkeeper? Somebody probably told him something like "that pregnant girl is having her baby and what are you going to do about it?" Did he help? Did he send out his wife or daughter? Did he call a midwife? Did he provide the swaddling cloths? How did he react when all those shepherds showed up, sheep in tow, to visit his stable? We don't know. How would you have reacted if you were the Innkeeper? How many Innkeepers out there have had the miracle of a birth suddenly surprise a guest?
So here's to that Innkeeper, forever immortalized as either mean or generous depending upon your interpretation of the event. And here's to all of us Innkeepers, as we enter another year. May we remember that poor Innkeeper and his dilemma. Would we have done the same as he did?
Merry Christmas to everyone this holiday season!