December 20, 2019

A Christmas meditation shares Jacob the innkeeper’s story

By John F. Fink

I have to tell you about the most exciting day of my life, one that I never expected to occur during my lifetime. It happened several years ago.

But first I’d better tell you who I am. My name is Jacob, and I have been the innkeeper of the only inn in Bethlehem. Usually that one inn is sufficient for a little town like Bethlehem, but that year Caesar Augustus issued a decree that everyone in the Roman Empire had to go to where their ancestors came from and be registered. Well, Bethlehem was once important because that’s where King David was born and raised, so a lot of people came to register.

On this particular day, a man named Joseph arrived with his wife, Mary. She was pregnant and appeared to be near the time for the birth. They, of course, were looking for a room in my inn, but I had already had to turn down some others because I simply didn’t have any room.

I felt sorry for them because they had come a great distance. Joseph said that they lived in Nazareth, which is way up in Galilee, about 80 miles away. To get to Bethlehem, they had to meet up with a caravan where the Jordan River flows out of the Sea of Galilee. The caravan traveled down the east side of the Jordan River, so they could avoid the mountains of Samaria, until it neared Jericho. Then it crossed the river and began a tough walk up the mountains in the Judean Desert until it reached Jerusalem. Then Joseph and Mary left the caravan and walked the final five miles to Bethlehem by themselves.

Of course, Mary rode a donkey most of the way. Joseph walked. The whole trip took them six days.

I learned from Joseph that Mary had taken a similar trip nine months before when she visited her relative Elizabeth, and returned to Nazareth six months ago. She was used to taking long trips, but this time she was nine months pregnant.

As much as I felt sorry for them, I still couldn’t give them a room in the inn. The best I could do was put them up in the stable behind the inn, where they also put the donkey that Mary rode on. Joseph had to feed and water the donkey anyway. At least, I thought, there was enough straw for them to rest.

A couple hours later, Joseph was back at the inn. Mary was ready to give birth, he said. I quickly found a midwife for him, but it turned out that she wasn’t needed. The midwife said later that the birth was miraculous.

All that was exciting enough, but there was more. Shortly after the birth, I suddenly found some unexpected guests—shepherds who had been in the fields. Of course, I didn’t let them inside the inn; my other guests would have objected vehemently to having shepherds there.

But they wanted to see the new baby. “Why,” I asked, “and how did you know that a baby was born?”

One of the shepherds said that they were tending their sheep as usual when there was suddenly a great light, and a man they agreed had to be an angel told them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Lk 2:10-11).

When I heard that, I got goose bumps. Every Jew, especially those of us who live in Bethlehem, knows what that means. We have long awaited a savior, Messiah and Lord. Some people think that he will be a great military leader, but I believe that he will be a spiritual leader.

Other angels joined the first angel and sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk 2:14). And they told them where they would find their savior. So they came here to my stable.

It was an amazing night. It happened several years ago, and I haven’t heard anything more about that baby. I assume that he is growing up in Nazareth. I hope I will still be around when he grows up.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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