It had been a long, hard journey. Four days of sharing the walking and riding. The sun had shone brightly most of the way. Nights had been spent wherever rest and refreshment could be found. They were dusty and tired. It had not been a quiet journey. Thousands of others were on the move; some travelling south, like them; others they met on the way travelling cross country, east to west; shorter journeys perhaps but not necessarily any easier. Others were travelling north. It seemed so bizarre to meet some travelling to where they had left whilst they travelled to where these strangers had come from. Many they met, out of earshot of any soldiers, cursed Augustus Caesar, Rome and this awful census. The powerful forcing the poor to travel to register, with disregard for anything but the whim, convenience and assertion of power. They did not think much of it themselves. Along the way they talked much, and had long periods held in their own thoughts. They looked up into the hills and recalled the words they had long known, ‘My eyes look unto the hills, from where shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord.’
‘When Gabriel appeared to me he gave me no warning that we would end up travelling so far so close to my time,’ Mary had mused on the second day. ‘Why, oh why, has God allowed this to happen to us on top of everything else? I thought perhaps it would at least have been an easy pregnancy and birth given all the circumstances.’
Joseph had concurred but added, ‘Yes, but God has entrusted us both with this extraordinary gift and task; so surely we can trust him to know what He is doing. Bethlehem is after all the place of royal birth for David, and our baby, his baby, is David’s descendant.’
But for Joseph the unease arose in the hubbub of Bethlehem itself. It was so crowded; so many people seemed to have this tiny place as their place of birth. Bethlehem was heaving. Joseph was not upset, or surprised, at the first over full inn but as he saw Mary pained, tired and in need of rest he did find his own temperature rising at the second. By the third refusal he was decidedly annoyed with God. ‘Surely Lord’, he muttered under his breath, ‘You could have arranged a room for us.’ His frustration built as more refusals came. He felt sure one or two had looked at Mary and decided that the last thing they needed on top of an over full inn was a baby being born on their premises at this time. Some of these people were his relatives too; ‘Whatever happened to family loyalty?’, he thought.
This time it was Mary, even in her pain, who told him not to fret. ‘Somehow’, she assured him, ‘our Lord knows what He is doing. But Joseph, I think I just felt a contraction.’
Finally, it was at a distant relative’s home, an invitation came. The man could hear the desperation in Joseph’s voice, but it was his wife who recognised Mary’s pain and made it clear that they had to find a way to welcome them in. ‘We have no room upstairs, but here, downstairs, where the animals sleep; we can clear some space, put down some fresh straw and make it as comfortable as we can. We’ll quickly clear out the feeding trough, wash it and fill it with straw just in case the baby decides to come tonight.’
Joseph and Mary could not stop saying ‘Thank you’ whilst together they cleared the space. Water came; Mary and Joseph felt wonderfully refreshed with clean hands, face and feet are after such a long journey. Food was brought, wine shared. All Mary and Joseph wanted to do then was sleep.
As they lay there they talked, ‘Can this really be where God meant when he set us on this journey? Is it right for his Son to be born in such a place, and such a way?’ Joseph asked. Through her intermittent pain Mary began to sing, the song Joseph had come to love so well, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant …’ Through all the unexpected twists and turns they both knew that God had chosen them in their lowliness and humility. Deep inside they understood that God had to bring his son to birth in poverty and pain. They dozed.
Suddenly Mary cried out in a pain Joseph had not heard before. Their hosts were quickly with them, with water and cloths. The long labour began. One of Bethlehem’s midwives, such an ancient trade, was called. Once she was there Joseph went outside with his relative, men were not allowed. Hearing Mary’s cries he agonised for her, and prayed. In her pain Mary wondered why she had said ‘Yes’. She did not like the pain, the wracking of her young body. But then, after many hours, the final pushes came and there he was held in the midwife’s hands, still attached by the cord. He cried. Joseph rushed in to see the baby being lain at Mary’s breast. Sitting beside her he wiped the tears from both their faces as they looked on God’s son, their child. Mary, covered in sweat, was overwhelmed with joy. She whispered over her baby, ‘Jesus, Son of the Most High, Holy One’. She gently sang ‘magnificat’. The midwife carried out her duties well, as she had so many times before. Yet she sensed something different here, in this young couple, and their child. She believed in God’s presence all the time, but somehow, here, God was present in a whole new way. She thanked the Lord for allowing her to be here, at this time, ‘Of all the midwives in all Israel, Lord, you chose me’, she gently prayed.
Hours later, with both Mary and Joseph exhausted, elated, and still wondering what all this would mean, unexpected guests arrived. Shepherds, rough burly men who stank of sheep and grass, burst in enthusiastically. But at the sight of the babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger they were stilled. For some their tongues were tied, but others’ tongues were unloosed in ecstasy. They spoke over one another telling of an angel, a host of angels, and singing and the promise of a Saviour, Christ the Lord. ‘And here he is’, one shouted above them all, ‘just like the angel said, “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger”’. For Joseph and Mary’s hosts it was all becoming too much; they were bewildered by everything going on. But for Joseph and Mary themselves, what confirmation; what astounding affirmation of everything they had themselves been told months before. They explained to the shepherds how they came to be here. They thanked the shepherds for searching them out. Once gone they could hear the shepherds knocking next door and telling their tale; their calling out to others in the street, ‘Good news! Good news! Our saviour is born this day’. Some shouted back that they were drunk, or told them impolitely to go away; shepherds after all were not highly respected. But some listened, and wondered, ‘Our saviour, at last, here?’
Mary and Joseph talked when they were finally alone with the tiny sleeping baby. He had fed, he had cried; they had experienced their first cleaning task. Together they talked of God and his amazing ways. They talked of other babies who became great men of God, of Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samuel. They wondered what lay ahead for this their child; God’s long promised and awaited Saviour. How would it all work out? They admitted to each other they had simply no idea.
‘But this I do know,’ Mary said, ‘God has kept his promise to us, to Israel, to all the world. His Son has been born, the Saviour is here.’
‘Yes’, replied Joseph, ‘God is with us, the Saviour is here.’