Reading scripture in a contemplative way can be a beautifully mysterious experience. This is true in many ways, including how passages of scripture that you’ve read or heard countless times before can suddenly burst with new meaning. Somehow, light is able to slip in through the cracks to shine in brand-new ways, to illuminate a truth long hidden in shadow.
I recently had a glimpse of that experience when reading the following passage from Luke 2:1-7.
Now it happened that in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire. (This first registration took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to be registered, each one to his own town. So Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David, to be registered together with Mary, who was legally promised in marriage to him and was pregnant. And it happened that while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
When reading this at the start of Advent 2020, the person who was whispering my name during this reading was—the innkeeper.
Yes. The innkeeper.
Purists, of course, would say that there is no innkeeper in the story, only a statement that there was no place for Joseph and Mary in the inn.
Biblical scholars also point out that, not only was there no innkeeper mentioned—but the concept of the inn itself may not be correctly understood. The Greek word of katalyma, they say, could more accurately be translated as a room or a guest room, rather than a building like today’s hotel. Perhaps it could be envisioned more like a bed and breakfast, one where all of the guests shared a common space. And, by the time that a worried Joseph and a weary Mary arrived, there simply was no more room in that inn.
The specifics of the space being described, though, don’t change what I’m hearing from this Biblical story in 2020. That’s because my focus is actually on the anonymity of the innkeeper. (Many times, people don’t have their names recorded in the Bible but, in this case, the innkeeper is so anonymous that his or her presence isn’t even specifically noted.)
I’m certain, though, that an innkeeper of sorts existed. After all, somebody maintained that structure and someone told Joseph that there was no place for the couple at the inn—and surely that was the innkeeper.
Perhaps this person had looked forward to seeing plenty of travelers who were heading to Bethlehem to register their families, bringing news from afar. Perhaps he or she rearranged belongings to create extra space in the inn and secured more food supplies in anticipation. Or maybe this preparation took place with a sense of resignation, something that simply had to be done because people were coming, wanted or not. In either case, travelers arrived and needed food and shelter.
Fast-forwarding to today, we are continually surrounded by and impacted by countless anonymous people, those who clear ice and snow off of our slippery streets, those who drive necessary supplies down the highway, and those who serve in essential jobs during the dangerous age of COVID.
What are their names? Usually, we simply don’t know. And, if I’m honest, even when I have an opportunity to learn them (after all, plenty of essential workers wear name tags!), I don’t use their names and, if they registered with me, I quickly forget them.
So, perhaps the innkeeper is calling out to me—and to other people like me—to speak the names of the typically anonymous in 2020 and beyond.
“I don’t know the name of the employee who gave me directions from this gas station yesterday, but I’d love to thank him. He got me out of a real jam.”
“Thank you, Maria, for delivering this package during freezing temperatures. We’ve been eagerly waiting for this.”
When these messages can’t be spoken in person during the days of COVID, they often can be sent to the employer online.
Each time that you think about or share this gratitude, consider how these feelings dovetail with the Christmas story. The Star of Bethlehem, after all, was said to offer direction during a challenging journey, while the entire story shares a tale of delivery—and a foreshadowing of deliverance—something that was eagerly awaited then and still is today.
Thank you, Innkeeper! You’ve given me a whole lot to think about.