by Richard Lau
Joseph had never seen Bethlehem so crowded. It seemed like an endless number of people was packed in the streets and surrounding structures.
But he had more important things on his mind. His pregnant wife Mary was about to give birth, and he could not find a place of sufficient space and privacy.
“I’m sorry, sir,” apologized the front desk clerk, “as I said, we have no rooms available. They are all filled.”
“How can they all be filled?” demanded the expectant father-to-be. “This is the Infinity Inn! It’s known for having an infinite number of rooms!”
“That’s true,” admitted the clerk. “Unfortunately, at this time of year, especially during the census, we have an infinite number of guests!”
“But…” started Joseph, struggling to picture that many people in a head whose capacity was twenty.
Beside him, Mary took a deep breath and released a slow, smooth sigh. She was well-aware of her husband’s penchant for stubborn argument and unnecessary discourse, particularly when he was tired and under pressure.
Joseph continued. “Doesn’t having so many guests make taking a census impossible?”
The clerk thought for a moment and then nodded. “That does make it more difficult. And the task does seem to take a while. But who can say when one census ends and the next one begins?”
Joseph was about to argue the point when his wife’s elbow nudged a familiar area in his ribcage.
Joseph leaned forward. “Well, we don’t have an infinite amount of time. Can’t you see my wife is pregnant?”
“Yes,” acknowledged the clerk. “Congratulations.”
“So, we really need a room.”
“I am not disagreeing with your need, sir. I am just unable to fulfill your request.”
Joseph tried another approach. “Wait a minute. In order to have an infinite amount of rooms, you have to be adding rooms constantly, otherwise you’d just end up with a finite number, isn’t that correct? It would be a rather large finite number but still finite!”
“True,” agreed the clerk, nodding his head. “We do have the continuous construction of new rooms. Fortunately, the guests don’t seem to mind the noise.”
“So, give us one of those rooms,” insisted Joseph. “One of the new additional rooms you’re adding.” He gave a “know-it-all” and “I-told-you-so” look at his wife.
She frowned, holding her protruding belly. Of all the inopportune times for her headstrong husband to get into a one-upmanship contest!
“I have to apologize again, sir,” said the clerk. “We have a waiting list for those rooms, and it is infinitely long. We can add you to the list, but it could take a while before we can get you a room, and, as you say, I’m not sure if your wife has that much time.”
Mary tugged on her husband’s sleeve, but Joseph had thought of yet another angle.
“All we need is one room,” Joseph said. “I’m sure with the infinite number of guests here, you’ll be able to find two guests willing to share a room for the good of a woman about to be in labor.”
The clerk at least tried to look sympathetic. “That may be so, but we’d have to speak with each guest until we find one who wants to move and then we’d have to continue contacting guests until we find one who wants to share their room. It is already too late to disturb our guests. And even if we tried, it could take quite a while until we found a compatible pairing. Plus, most of the guests might figure like you that with an infinite number of guests, some other guest might be more agreeable to moving or sharing, so why should they?”
Joseph had one last idea. “Look, with an infinite number of guests, you must have an infinite number checking out, right? Why can’t we have one of those recently vacated rooms?”
“My apologies again, Mr. Joseph,” said the desk clerk, “but along with an infinite number of departures, we also have an infinite reservation list for those vacated rooms.”
Joseph had a sudden epiphany: that at the Infinite Inn, the desk clerk also had an infinite number of rebuttals to whatever Joseph proposed.
Sullenly, the tired and worn-down husband turned to his wife and sadly confessed, “The manger it will have to be.”
An exasperated Mary, thrilled that her husband had finally had a change of heart and had seen the light, cried “Thank God!”
“Good luck getting there,” said the desk clerk rather snappishly.
Joseph had reached the end of his rope and was spoiling for a fight. “What is that supposed to mean? The manger is just down the street from your so-called infinite establishment!”
“Yes,” admitted the clerk. “But before you reach the manger, you must first go half the distance to the manger. And before you even reach that point, you must first traverse the halfway point between here and the halfway point to the manger. And go half that distance. And half that distance. And so on and so on. Each step covering an infinitely smaller distance.
“You have quite a journey ahead of you, sir. Good luck and good night.”
However, Mary and Joseph did manage to make it to the manger, where their baby was born.
It was indeed a time for miracles.
Richard Lau is an award-winning writer who has been published in newspapers, magazines, anthologies, the high-tech industry, and online.
Can one fully grasp the concept of infinity and wield it into a practical, understandable framework? And can the same be said of God? Or are both knowingly unknowable? This piece of speculative philosophy combines perhaps the most popular Christmas story ever told with The Grand Hotel Paradox of mathematician David Hilbert, with a bonus paradox thrown in for good measure!