No room at the inn – five simple, poignant words that almost uniquely convey rejection and humiliation. The traditional narrative, reproduced in countless sentimental Nativity scenes across the globe every Christmas, pictures Joseph and Mary arriving exhausted at Bethlehem, to which they have been forced to travel to be counted in Caesar Augustus’ empire-wide census. Mary goes into labour and delivers the infant Saviour in a stable, laying him in a food trough.
The only problem with this depiction is that it is not actually what the biblical account says. Like the three wise kings from the east in the same story – the Bible doesn’t say how many kings, only that they bear three gifts – the story has been fixed by Renaissance art and the choice of the word “inn”.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, and more generally, the word “inn” is translated “guestroom”. According to scholars, Joseph and Mary most likely arrived at the home of one of Joseph’s relatives, but the guestroom – like the town – was already full of others gathered for the census, so the couple had to stay on the lower floor, which was shared with the animals. It would have been inconceivable for a first-century Jewish household to refuse hospitality to family members, especially a pregnant woman. Luke’s Gospel makes it clear Mary had not just arrived when she went into labour.
Nevertheless, Luke strongly emphasises the central point for the Christian faith: that the incarnate son of God was born into humble circumstances and spent his life on the margins of society, finding no place among the religious, political or legal establishments of the time. “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him,” reports John in his Gospel.
So the story of the Nativity has resounded through the ages, a powerful metaphor for the numberless on the margins of society. Soon after, the holy family had to flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s massacre of the innocents, one drop in the vast ocean of refugees over the millennia. According to the United Nations, in mid-2021 there were more than 84 million forcibly displaced people – more than one in every 100 people on the planet – up from 59.5 million in 2014.
“No room at the inn” certainly resonates with Kaveh Hassanzadeh, an Iranian refugee who has settled in Melbourne. He and his wife, Hoda Ameri, had to flee when they became interested in Christianity – apostasy from Islam can bring a death sentence in Iran – and they came to Australia from Indonesia by boat in 2012.
“It was a small boat, 18 days on the ocean, and we didn’t know what was going on, what was going to happen,” Hassanzadeh recalls.
Since settling in Melbourne both have become Anglican ministers, serving Farsi-speaking congregations, and they have three sons born here, aged nine, seven and five. In one sense, they are the epitome of refugees who have integrated and settled, but in another they, too, have found no room at the inn: because they came by boat, even though it was before the government introduced new rules, they can never become Australian citizens.
“This is our home because you have freedom to choose your own religion, and the government cares about you and protects you,” Hassanzadeh says. “But unfortunately after nine years we still have the same visa status, we are standing on air, there is nothing clear for us.
“Sometimes we feel we are not welcome here. We try hard to contribute to the life of Australia, we pay tax, this is where our kids grow up, but at the end we don’t have the rights of Australians. When my son, who was born here, is old enough to go to university, we can’t afford the price of an education.”
Nevertheless, they are profoundly grateful. “Most Australian people are always supportive, welcoming, they help us to settle in and encourage us, and we are really thankful to God for them. We experienced corrupt government and bad policies back in Iran, so we are really grateful to this government. But it is not good for Australia to keep more than 30,000 of us in this situation because we have talent and skills, and our kids also, and we can contribute to this country.”
But the Christmas story means they never lose hope, Hassanzadeh says. “That’s a big comfort for us every weekend in our church. Sometimes we say to people, ‘God knows what we experience’. Jesus Christ was a refugee, and we are in the same boat with him somehow. He understands our pain, he understands our journey, and he comforts us in that way.”
For Melbourne University professor of psychiatry Louise Newman, the ‘no room at the inn’ story remains important because “it highlights the complex processes that go on about who gets in and who doesn’t, who are the worthy and who gets to make decisions about them”.
There are obvious parallels between asylum seekers and, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, who gets vaccines and who doesn’t. Such questions are evident in “the lack of humanity, the appalling lack of capacity to think about Africa and other developing countries, despite the fact that it puts us all in peril with the increasing rates of variants”, Newman says.
“The thing that gets thrown away is the idea of collective and moral responsibilities to protect the powerless and weak, and if people can’t think of that at Christmas, then I think we have lost our path, and it’s very troubling.”
A consultant psychiatrist at the Albert Road Clinic, Newman says the pandemic has clearly caused an existential crisis that affects everyone. She was horrified at the instant lockdown of Melbourne’s housing commission towers, filled with refugees and people without English, and the different treatment of migrant-filled suburbs in south-western Sydney.
“It’s really highlighted pre-existing fractures in society, as opposed to making new ones, but there are serious issues about who makes those decisions about the worthiness or unworthiness of minority groups, and how we treat them. The virus doesn’t know racial or religious difference, it’s not particularly interested, but we are and that’s how we are making decisions, it seems.”
Newman says the inn has to be defined as the world, and understood as a metaphor about social policies and practices that protect the vulnerable, so that “we acknowledge our moral and ethical responsibility as a human collective”.
Ethicist Gordon Preece, chairman of Melbourne’s Anglican Social Responsibilities Committee, contrasts Australia’s response with that of Germany, which took in a million Middle Eastern refugees in 2015. Despite teething problems, this revitalised underpopulated and dying parts of the nation, he says. “It was a great example of Christian charity and hospitality, providing room at the inn.”
Preece says Australia has abandoned its position as a global citizen, which eventually leads to “turning on your own. And that’s what happened.” He cites the federal government’s refusal to let citizens return for months at a time, even threatening to jail those who tried.
“If you adopt that attitude it doesn’t just stop at the borders. It’s infected the whole attitude of the states in Australia. There’s been an obsessiveness and lack of compassion in so many cases, operating out of fear. I think [Prime Minister Scott] Morrison is very isolationist, and it ends up infecting the nation’s soul.”
The Christmas story provides a different model of fundamental relationship, he says. “It is the idea of God coming in and making his home even in the most inhospitable places, wrapping his arms around the least, the last and the lost of us.”
Melbourne philosopher Christopher Cordner says the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth are deeply revealing of God’s character. “It’s not a matter of glory from above descending in worldly pomp. God is the poor and despised and the meek as much as those who are being helped under that description. God taking that form is something of the nature of the divine spirit, not just those the divine spirit is responding to.”
Cordner, a former head of the Melbourne University philosophy department and an agnostic, says the Christmas narrative strips away all worldly pretensions: “Of course it’s about our relations and obligations to others but only against the background of this utterly unique conception in Christianity of divinity and godhead. Christianity is the only one of the great religions that has this utterly paradoxical and philosophically unintelligible concept of incarnation at its centre.”
It breaks down every barrier of difference between people, and that’s what is embedded in being the Christ child who is born in a manger, he suggests. “Aristotle’s lip would have curled in disdain at the idea that these people should be responded to like that. He would have thought it sentimental rubbish.” In contrast, French philosopher Simone Weil remarked that if someone in a position of power can respond without the slightest trace of condescension, that’s a miracle more remarkable than walking on water.
Dr Natasha Moore, a senior fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity, believes the incarnation turned power relations upside-down. She says theologian John Swinton, who spent a lot of time with the disabled and people with dementia, worked out that what seem to be the margins of society are really the centre. “If you consider that Jesus occupies those spaces, they are no longer the margins – they are where it’s all happening, where God is, where truth is, where goodness and justice lie.”
Jesus finds rejection from his birth onward, according to the biblical narrative, she says. “The Christmas story is partly about seeking space in our lives; are we going to let in the sacred, are we going to let in God?
“COVID has helped show us that our lives are not necessarily filled with the things we want. Some of us would like to organise them differently, to make space for things that really matter – the important rather than just the urgent.”
In an essay this month in leading US magazine Christianity Today, Russell Moore quoted the noted 20th-century mystic and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who saw the lack of room in the census city as a metaphor for our time – a time of crowding, a mustering of armies, a moving of mobs, a display of power.
“Why was the inn crowded?” Merton asks. “Because of the census, the massing of the ‘whole world’ in centres of registration, to be numbered, to be identified with the structure of imperial power,” he answers. “The purpose of the census: to discover those who were to be taxed. To find out those who were eligible for service in the armies of the empire.”
That there is no room for Christ is a sign of the end. “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited,” Merton wrote. “But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room.”
Christ’s place, Merton argues, “is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”
This article first appeared in The Age.