She couldn’t gauge his mood from the set of his shoulders.
He hadn’t said much since it happened. The quiet seriousness of his demeanour when he told her he would not betray her condition, that he would stand by her, take care of her and the child, stayed with her. He hadn’t looked at her, and once he’d said his piece he left.
In a way she was pleased the Romans had insisted on this census, that they had to come to Bethlehem to register. This way, anyone keeping count would not be able to point fingers if the babe came while they were here.
The pregnancy had gone well, the baby moving gently through the weeks. She felt overwhelming love for this little one though he had caused her all sorts of grief.
She would never forget the stricken look on Jo’s face when she told him she was with child. She watched the conflicting emotions play over his strong features, prayed he would not disown her, end their engagement.
The next night she was woken by a vibration, a powerful movement of air pulsed around the house, an unearthly glow shimmered from the walls. Similar to that night. She smiled to herself. She was chosen. Plain Mary. Not the vivacious Rebecca, or the gorgeous Lydia. No! Mary was the favoured one.
The following morning Jo told her he’d been visited in the night, that he had been told by an angel they should go ahead and get married.
Her parents were thrilled. They’d been waiting for this word for months. The house hummed with activity, the smell of spices from the kitchen filled the air, her father gave her a bottle of cologne, cinnamon and bergamot and frankincense. She could barely contain her excitement – she had never had perfume before! Her younger sister, Rachel, wanted to try it, had grabbed the bottle out of her hand. She was terrified it would be broken in the scuffle. Rachel was impossible!
She was so shy the night of the wedding. Jo said nothing, settled her on the bed and slept on the floor next to her. I won’t touch you until the child is born, he said. I asked what the watchers would say. I have a cloth he responded – they will be happy with that.
He had treated her with utmost respect, but she missed the easy camaraderie they had before that night. The night of the visitation from beyond the heavens. It had all seemed so right then, so easy. But these past months had been hard, hard to hold on to that feeling of awe, remember the extraordinary love that enfolded her, the warmth spreading through her body, engulfing her.
Then the news that her cousin Elizabeth was with child well into her old age. They were calling her the modern day Sarah. And poor Zac, quite overcome and unable to speak. No one knew what had happened to him that day in the temple. He was gone so long they began to worry he had died in the Holy of Holies. They were debating whether they should pull on the rope, get him out, when he appeared, white as a sheet and quite unable to speak.
Soon thereafterElizabeth began to swell, glowing with joy at finally carrying a baby. The people of the village in the mountains of Judea wondered if the two incidents were related. There was a lot of talk.
Mary knew she had to go and see her. Their experiences were too similar. Her suspicions were confirmed when Elizabeth cried in excitement that the baby had leapt for joy in her womb as he heard the voice of the mother of his lord! How on earth had she known Mary was with child – for she had told no one, and be sure, Joseph would not have said a word!
She could be brave with Elizabeth, she thought walking home from her cousin’s home. She worried, now, about when she would begin to show, how to disguise her dates, the sadness in her husband’s eyes. He still wasn’t sure about all of this.
Then had come the news of the census, shortly followed by the decree. Jo’s family were from Bethlehem, her family from Nazareth. His brothers and parents had left a few days ago. Jo said they should wait and go at the last minute. That way they could be alone and wait for the child to come. They would also be able to celebrate Passover away from prying eyes. So here they were, on this dusty road on a glorious late winter’s day, a hint of spring in the rays of the sun.
Jo insisted on bringing the donkey, concerned the walk would be too much for her. She liked the donkey and it was reassuring to know she could give her feet a rest. Her back ached – her mother had commented on her size last week, wondering how she would deliver such a large baby. Oh God, it is so hard to deceive those closest to me. And I worry about my man, he is so good, so patient, but I know he is hurting, his thoughts trouble him. As they would me if the roles were reversed.
The strangeness hadn’t ended there. They heard Liz had had her baby. On the eighth day at the dedication at the temple, Zac’s father had stepped forward to name the child, as Zac was still struck dumb. He had spoken forth the name Zacharias as it should be, but Liz interrupted and said No, he will be called John. Unheard of. The relatives argued with her. No such name in our family, or yours for that matter. Her eyes found Zac’s, beseeching. Ask him, she urged. Him? He can’t speak! But he can write. A piece of paper was found – he wrote: his name is John. Immediately he could speak!
The land was full of whispers and wonderings.
“Where are your thoughts?” She hadn’t noticed Jo dropping back to walk beside her.
“I was thinking about Liz and Zac. Did I tell you about my visit with her?” He shook his head. “You were lost in a world of your own when you returned from Judah,” he said.
“She knew I was pregnant before I even stepped into her home. She said her baby had leapt for joy in her womb, and she asked what the mother of her Lord was doing visiting her. It was so odd, Jo! And then calling him John. They say Liz was adamant. And when Zac wrote the confirmation, he was able to speak once more.”
“What are we a part of, Jo?”
“I don’t know. These past months have not been easy, Mary, but I feel at peace. I keep thinking I should be angry with you, with Yahweh, I should feel betrayed. But instead I have a deep sense of peace, of things being as they should be.”
“I am so glad, Jo. I would hate to lose you in all this.”
He smiled that smile, and for the first time in months the glow of love was back in his eyes.
“I think you should ride now. You’ve walked a long way.”
Gratefully she allowed him to help her onto the donkey. Bethlehem was in sight, they could hear the town: the sound of voices and animals sifted onto the evening air. The dull ache in her lower back pressed into her, the massage of the movement of the donkey easing it only slightly. I walked too far.
The sun was close to the horizon when they passed through the gate of the town.
‘Not long now and you can have a proper rest.” She smiled.
Then began the nightmare. Rather than everyone having registered and headed home or to Jerusalem for Passover, it seemed the whole of Israel had decided to stay in Bethlehem. Inn after inn was full.
It had been dark for a while, businesses were closing. Joseph was panicking, desperate. The pain in her back was worse. People jostled impatient at the donkey blocking their passage. It was getting late. They were hungry. There was only one place left to try. Tears filled her eyes as she saw the innkeeper shake his head, Jo’s shoulders slumped, desperation oozing out of him.
The man was closing the door when he stopped and turned back. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Jo nodded, the innkeeper nodded, his wife came out to her. “You poor child, I am so sorry but we will do the best we can for you.”
She led them through the courtyard to the cattle stalls. “We sold a cow today and her calf, so we have a stall free. Thank heavens my son cleaned it, and filled it with fresh bedding, ready for the sheep to come in tomorrow.”
She stumbled from the donkey and would have fallen, but Jo had her, his arms strong and secure as he easily lifted her. The innkeeper’s wife was fixing straw, making a mattress of sorts. Mary gasped as her muscles cramped. The spasm was gone almost as soon as it started, but if left her breathless.
”Are you alright? Mary, Mary, look at me, what is happening?”
Before she could respond, she felt a hand on her tummy, a discerning look from the Innkeeper’s wife. “It is time, the baby will come tonight.”
Joseph nearly dropped her. The woman smiled and patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry, it will be a while yet. I have had four children, we will manage. Put her down, I will go and get food for you. I am Miriam, by the way.”
The bed was surprisingly comfortable. Until the next spasm. And the next.
Jo began pacing. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know what to do, Mary! I’m lost here.”
A gush of water. Joseph yelped in fright. Mary wanted to laugh, but the tightening of her belly took her breath away.
“Bring more straw, Jo, so I can wipe this mess. Keep a space dry for the baby.”
“Where is she? Straw. Yes. Okay. Here, I will make it dry. Take it easy. Oh, Mary, I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have left it so late!”
She took his hand. “Look at me, Jo! It is going to be fine. I am having a baby, a baby ordained by Yahweh Himself – do you think He won’t take care of us?”
He relaxed a fraction. “I feel responsible. Yahweh has trusted us both, Mary. If anything were to happen to you or the baby….”
“Nothing is going to happen. Here, big man, you need some sustenance, it could be a long night. First baby?” Miriam was all business.
They both nodded. “They take their time. Ah, your waters broke. That is good, that means the little one is truly on the way!”
It was somewhere past midnight when the air began to change, lighten, a faint pulse, the animals shuffled closer. Joseph drew his cloak tighter, frowning as he looked at Mary, her hair wet with sweat, brow creased in concentration.
The innkeeper came in. “Think you can all do with some refreshment, yes?” Weary nods were his reply.
“Strange light outside. Big, bright star. Thought it was the moon gone mad at first.”
Mary grunted. Miriam was immediately alert. “Have you got your swaddling clothes?”
“Here,” said Joseph.
“Good. Eli, we will need warm water to wash the baby. Maybe you and Joseph can see to that.”
She leant forward to Mary. “It is time, my dear, the next contraction you must push. Hard.”
The men arrived with the basin of water within minutes of the baby arriving. “It is a boy,” Miriam announced as she took the basin. “A beautiful boy!”
“There is a strange humming outside,” Joseph said, “and that star is huge.”
“Am I hearing singing?” asked Eli. “I hear it too,” said Miriam. The animals were restless, pressing against their stalls, straining at their leads. The donkey hovered close to Joseph. The light grew brighter. Footsteps, hurrying. Lambs bleating. Hushed voices.
Before Eli could get out of the barn to see what was happening a group of shepherds peered in, jostling for space. “Is the baby born?” “We’ve come to see the baby!” “The Christ!”
“What on earth…?”
“It’s alright,” said Joseph, “ you can let them in.”
When they were settled around Mary and the baby, Joseph asked them. “How did you know about the baby, and where to come?
“It was the most amazing sight!”
“I thought the end of the world had come””
“The sky was full of them…”
“Of who? Or What?” Eli was gruff in his consternation .
“Such a joyous sound!”
“Echoing across the heavens, the very air seemed to beat in time with their wings.”
“One, a huge Angel, spoke to us.”
“Yes, told us not to be afraid.”
“Said we should rejoice, that he had great news for us, for the whole world…”
“Yes, he said a Saviour was born, here in Bethlehem, the Christ, the Lord.”
“So we came as fast as we could…”
“How did you know where to find the baby?”
“And the wind.”
“Yes, a great white light streamed from a large star and led us straight here, stopped at the door.”
”The wind was like a tunnel, moving us along.”
“Can we see the baby now?”
The sheep had not taken part in the discussion, and instead were crowded around Mary and Joseph, taking it in turns to sniff the bundle she held in her arms. Mary looked up at Joseph. He was gazing at the baby.
“How can it be,” she whispered, “that even the animals seem to know He is someone special?”
Joseph smiled broadly. “I don’t know, Mary, it all feels right somehow.”
Dawn was wisping its way across the sky when Eli and Miriam left the barn.
“What a night!” Eli said. “Something extraordinary happened there, Miriam. Do you really think this baby is the Saviour, that this truly is Emanuel? Born in a stable. To a carpenter? And a young girl?”
In the Inn people were talking about the strange sounds and the bright light that had woken them through the night. Eli and Miriam listened, and nodded, but said nothing.
Out in the barn, a baby, wrapped in the swaddling clothes of the line of David, lay in a manger, his parents asleep on a bed of straw.
Around them, the animals kept watch.
Each year at the time of the census, people would remind each other of the strange happenings of that one night, and wonder what it was all about.
Some thirty years later a young prophet created a stir throughout the land. Stories abounded of miracle healings, exorcisms, people raised from the dead. Could this be the Messiah, the One they all longed for.
The tales filtered through to an inn in Bethlehem. Then people came from Jerusalem with the news that the prophet had been crucified. They said the sky turned black, the Temple curtain ripped in two, graves burst open.
“I wonder” said Eli to Miriam, “if that is the baby that was born in our barn all those years ago? It makes sense of a sort, that one born in a great light, should die in great darkness.”