Recently I was chatting with a minister friend about preparations for Christmas. She commented on how she had tried to challenge the sanitised view of Christmas of her folk by arranging to hold a service in a barn. I replied that I had attempted something similar in our newsletter, including pointing out that the innkeeper does not actually appear in the Bible. She was shocked, surely I was wrong! Even if he wasn’t there, surely he and his harsh words were clearly implied. I am not convinced. We then got into a discussion about Midrash (a concept I’ve never really got to grips with) and tradition and their benefits and weaknesses.
Mr Mean Innkeeper does not appear in Luke, in fact neither does a stable, an ox, ass, lamb or a glittery roof; all that is recorded is “she gave birth to her firstborn wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Notwithstanding the truths contained in the “traditional” version of the story, I wondered what the mythical innkeeper might want to say about what really happened that night. No doubt this is not original and many good creative writers have already done this, but here’s my attempt.
“You don’t know my name, nor anything about me, but I get the impression you’d probably call me Mike (Mean Inn KEeper) given that the first words you put in my mouth are ‘no room,’ and I try to close the door on a heavily pregnant teenager and her gentle, older-man, partner. It’d be nice to have the chance to give you my version…
Bethlehem was heaving, and I mean heaving, every day. Couples, families, men on their own, old, young, serious, laughing, moaning, healthy, sick… you name it, they came piling in. We worked our sandals off (socks, you will recall, had not been invented) just to keep up with it all. But we coped, and somehow, despite it all, I kept my cool.
It wasn’t easy – all those Roman Health and Safety Rules to comply with, Kosher food only (you always assumed I was a Jewish innkeeper didn’t you?), endless hard work. And every night all the inns (how ever many you think there were) full to bursting and countless bodies curled up in doorways, under trees, along the roadside. We packed in as many as we could, but there were always far more.
So the fateful night came. I was walking through the market when I saw them. Her already in the early stage of labour, him trying to help, looking for a tree to provide shelter. I felt for them, went to see if they were alright – did they have far to go back to their family home? They turned out to be visitors, caught out by her confinement, frightened and alone. So what else could I do? I took them home with me.
The lower part of the house – what you call a stable – was empty, the sheep were out on the hillside (haven’t you ever read the rest of the story?!), swept clean and already had seen several overnight guests that week. I settled them in and waited for the ear-splitting cry that would announce a baby’s arrival.
I feared for his safety, this tiny scrap of humanity, in an inn overflowing with tired, often irritable, travellers, so I suggested they place him in the food trough away from trampling feet and heavy packs. There was no room in my inn, the storyteller is right, and she did lay him in the manger.
But was Mike the Mean Innkeeper? Was it Mike or Michelle? Was I Jew or gentile? Kind or cruel? Young or old? You have to decide for yourselves.”
Another thought occurred to me while writing this – there is nothing to say where the manger was, presumably it could have been out in the open and not in a ‘stable’ at all? Part of the wonder of the birth narratives is not how much, but how little, they actually say. Whilst clever scholars discuss myth and Midrash, wide-eyed children retell the story of the Mean Innkeeper, and the ubiquitous ox and ass look on lovingly at a baby who never cries, I continue to marvel at the new discoveries waiting for us when we start to read what the Bible actually says. Mike the Innkeeper is a figment of my imagination but maybe he, too, has his place in the mystery and magic of Christmas?