“Because there was no room for them at the inn.”

Those words, some of the most poignant in all of Western literature, words which have inspired countless treasures of music and iconography and devotion, may be a mistranslation.

That is the suggestion of Ian Paul, an Anglican theologian who argues that the Greek word kataluma which St. Jerome rendered diversorium and most English Bibles translate “inn” may well mean simply, as it does elsewhere in the Gospels, “upper room.”

… the actual design of Palestinian homes (even to the present day) makes sense of the whole story. … most families would live in a single-room house, with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with straw, in the living area, where the animals would feed.

—mangers, that is, which would provide a natural place to rest a baby.

Paul provides a few other reasons, aside from the philological one, as to why the traditional picture of the Holy Family alone in a stable or cave may be lacking in historical accuracy: most notably, the hospitality customs of the Middle East would have made it nearly impossible for St. Joseph not to have been received by some of his relatives.

Paul suggests, however, that revised nativity scenes may be slow in coming, because (among other reasons) we are accustomed to the idea of a lonely Jesus: accustomed to the theme of “‘the ostracism of the Son of God from human society, Jesus the refugee,’” which makes the image of Jesus in a house filled with noisy, loving relatives “‘subversive stuff’” (Paul, quoting Dick France).

(As an aside, I am not sure Fontanini, whose resin nativity sets have been the staple of many childhoods and adulthoods, got the Lonely Nativity message anyway.  Just the shepherds and kings alone make quite a crowd, and by the time you add in Allon the Basket Weaver, Armoni the Produce Merchant, Clement the Pig Herdsman and so on all the way down to Zina the Basket Weaver’s Wife, the Lonely Nativity has started to look like a Church bazaar.)

But Ian Paul’s account of the nativity has a poignancy all of its own, once you stop to contemplate it. Here was Mary, pregnant and nearly due, forced by circumstances to travel to her distant (or not-so-distant) in-laws. It is not likely, given the family’s poverty, that she expected privacy when she arrived, but certainly she must have hoped for it. But, as it turned out, “there was no room for them” in the more private upper room, because it was already filled with guests (whose non-expectant state may have enabled them to travel more quickly!).  And so Mary “brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger,” in the same big room where no doubt other members of the extended family were cooking, mending garments, milking the animals, laughing, quarreling, and cheering her on.

It’s not exactly the private experience that most would want when giving birth.  And by comparison, the lonely stable with ox and ass standing by begins to sound almost attractive.

But of course, Mary never lived life in terms of her own comfort. Her fiat to God’s will when it came to conceiving Jesus—and her silence under the cross when giving him back to the Father—are the two great bookends of the more dramatic part of her life on earth.  Neither experience can have been entirely comfortable.  But in between those two great instances recorded in Scripture, there must have been hundreds and indeed thousands of smaller exercises of her charity that go unrecorded, and which (if we could only know what they were) would provide models clearer to follow, because closer to our own situations.  Here, perhaps, is one, not from private revelation, but contained in Sacred Scripture itself: the picture of a young wife spending the holidays in close quarters with her in-laws; of a first-time mother giving birth among near-strangers of her husband’s family, and having to hear no doubt how much Jesus looked like them. Whatever she said in reply, it was certainly both true and kind. And knowing that she kept herself within the bounds of truth and kindness may perhaps make it easier for the rest of us, the next time we find ourselves faced with a larger-than-life helping of fruitcake.