After three days of travel, Joseph is weary and footsore. His pains are minor compared to those of his wife, Mary, riding the donkey behind him. She clings to the donkey’s mane with one hand while holding her swollen stomach with the other. She gives a low moan, prompting him to pick up their pace along the rocky road approaching Bethlehem. If it weren’t for the enforced census decreed by the Roman emperor, Mary would be at home with her mother as she prepares to give birth, instead of in a strange, crowded town. Nothing about this child is normal, he muses, and now it seems it would not even be born at home.
As he plods through the dusty twilight Joseph relives the night of the dream. He had fallen into a troubled sleep, heartsick over having to break his betrothal to the young woman he loved, because she was with child. Only it wasn’t his child. In the dream a clear white light emanated from a heavenly figure, who called him by name and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, because the child she carried was from the Holy Spirit; a son to be named Jesus, who would save his people from their sins.
In spite of the disapproval of many, Joseph did what the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary home. She slept in a small alcove in his house, and he did not go to her. Sometimes she would gently take his hand and hold it to where the child moved within her. They knew of each other’s angel visitations, but spoke rarely of the event to come. It was too awesome to fully comprehend.
Now the time has arrived for the baby to be born, and Joseph does what he can to prepare. The innkeeper has no room, but he kindly gives them a small oil lamp and a hastily swept corner of his stable for shelter. Amidst the dust, stench, and noise Joseph helps Mary off the donkey to slump against a grimy wall. By the time he returns with a bucket of water, her pains have increased. He is a most unlikely midwife, but he alone is here to help her. He wipes her face and grips her hand, thoughts flashing through his mind like lightning.
“Almighty Yahweh, if this is how you choose to bring Messiah to us, I do not understand! Shouldn’t there be a golden cradle, a silken blanket, a royal proclamation? Instead, he is brought forth in pain, in a dirty cattle stall, with barely enough thin linen to wrap around him, and no one to hail him.” Mary cries out again. He feels so helpless.
“Forgive me, Yahweh, for questioning you. Your ways are higher than my ways, and your thoughts higher than mine. Help me bring this blessed child into the world and I will do all in my power to care for him as my own.”
Then he is too busy to hear his own thoughts. From Mary’s body into his waiting hands comes the Messiah, no differently than any other child. His tiny fists flail, his plaintive cries echo in the stable. Joseph wipes the shivering infant, then places him on his mother’s breast to nurse for the first time. Mary smiles weakly, examining each minute limb to see all is perfect. Joseph sits back on his heels, exhaling a weary sigh. A cow lows close by, the oil lamp flickers as a cold draft whispers across the dirt floor. All is as it was before this child entered the world, yet Joseph knows nothing will ever be the same. Unbidden to his mind come the words of ancient scripture, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel, God with us.” He is finally here.