When Joseph disappeared inside the inn, Mary slid off the donkey. Because her legs trembled so, she leaned against the beast to keep from falling. Oh, how she ached from the journey! Had it only been three days? It seemed more like three months, three years even.
Though the trip was arduous, it afforded her the opportunity to become familiar with her husband, Joseph. As she thought back to the myriad conversations they shared on the road, a warmth spread through her, golden. He was a good man. The Lord had chosen well.
“We can rest now, Hannah,” she told the donkey. “I think, I hope.”
Joseph appeared in the doorway, a man behind him. Mary brightened. A bed, she thought, and a meal. And women, in case . . .
Joseph did not return her smile. “This is my wife, Mary,” he told the man.
“Shalom,” the older man said.
Mary nodded. “Shalom, sir.”
Joseph fit his hand in the small of Mary’s back and whispered into her ear. “There are no rooms to be had, beloved, here, or in all of Bethlehem. The census has brought—”
A sob escaped Mary before she could prevent it. Joseph placed his other hand on her swollen belly. “I am very sorry, my love.”
She lifted her chin. “I will be fine. The Lord will provide.”
The man led them on a path behind the inn. In the moonlight, a low stone wall framed a bit of pasture. Beyond it, the terrain rose rocky and steep.
“How much farther, sir?” Joseph asked. The man pointed.
Mary’s gasp was loud in the silent night. “A cave?”
“It is roomy inside. We use it as a stable. See? I built a wall with a door across the opening.” The innkeeper raised his lantern. Inside, cattle and sheep responded. Hannah whickered. “The heat from the animals will warm you.” He handed the light to Joseph. “Keep it on the ledge by the opening.”
Joseph reached for the lamp with one hand and shook the man’s hand with his other. “Thank you, sir. This is far better than bedding down alongside the road.”
The man produced a loaf of bread and a wineskin from a sack Mary had not seen. “It is not much, but my wife—”
Mary’s eyes glistened. “How kind. Please thank her on our behalf.”
“Your time? Is it—”
“Soon, very soon.”
The increasing insistence between her legs left Mary breathless. She longed to ask Joseph to cease the endless stroking of her hair, but she did not want to hurt his feelings. He was so kind. He would be a wonderful husband and father.
He did not divorce me, she thought. Praise be to the Most High God for that. Everyone had recommended divorce to him. She had not heard their words. There was no need. Their eyes, their avoidance of her and her family, said everything.
She spoke over her shoulder. “Thank you again.”
“For what, love?”
Mary’s insides quickened. “For convincing Mother and Father not to pronounce me dead to them.”
“The angel should have spoken with them as well.”
Mary gasped as searing heat returned to her loins. Pant, she reminded herself. Her cousin Elizabeth promised that would help. Mary pointed to her pack. Joseph eyed her shaking finger. “Inside. Olive branch.”
He rooted through the bag, drew out a piece of wood as thick as his thumb, and held it up. “This?”
She nodded, took it from him, and bit down on it as Elizabeth had advised. A moan rose from a place deep within her and out in the night, someone, something, hissed, “You will fail.”
At the beginning of the third watch the splitting inside Mary waned. Finally, she was able to catch her breath. Leaning back against the cave wall, she turned her cheek to the cool stone. As chilly as the Bethlehem night air was, she felt afire. She called to Joseph. “Water. Please.”
He balanced the wineskin against Mary’s lips and released a few drops. Her eyes begged for more. Joseph shook his head. “Mother said too much could make you sick.”
Mary’s eyes widened. “You asked your mother?” She peered down between her legs, “about this?”
“I knew it was possible we would be alone when your time came, with no women to help you. I had to know what to do.”
Mary touched her chest. Such a wise man, a very good man.
As the pains became more frequent, Joseph counted between them—300, 150.
“Joseph, husband, please pray for me, for our son.” She cried then, her wails desperate. Somewhere in the town of Bethlehem, a lone dog answered. “Pray I will not die here in this place.”
Joseph rested his hands atop her head. “Oh, Sovereign Lord, please instill in my young wife’s heart your truth, that weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”
In that moment, the pain receded and Mary slept.
When she opened her eyes, the first thing Mary saw was the babe in Joseph’s arms. She rubbed her eyes. “How? When?” Joseph’s grin split his face. He held the boy close, wrapped in his head covering. Mary whimpered and held out her arms. “Here. Let me.”
Joseph knelt beside her and eased the child into her arms. She buried her face in the boy, breathed deep his smell. In her lap, she unwrapped him, careful to keep her chest near his so he would not be chilled. She touched him here and there, counted his fingers, his toes. She whispered, “He seems like any baby, any boy. No different.”
Not taking his gaze off the child, Joseph nodded. Mary ran her fingers through the infant’s damp hair. “I thought he would be handsome, maybe even glorious, like Moses when he came down from the mountain of God, but he has no beauty or majesty to set him apart, nothing in his appearance to indicate who he is.”
“Remember, beloved,” Joseph said, “we can only see the outward appearance, but the Lord sees the heart.”
Mary pressed her middle finger into the center of the baby’s chest. “You, dear one, are not flesh of my flesh or bone of my bone. You are like another Adam. You are from God alone.” She lifted the babe high as if to offer him back to his heavenly father. “Blessed are You, Lord our God, king over the universe. Here is your son, your one and only son.”
Joseph stood near the cave’s entrance. “Mary, darling, you must come!” He pointed at the sky. “There is a marvelous light behind the hill. Wrap the child, I will show you.” Mary struggled to stand and Joseph hurried to her side. “Forgive me.” He lifted her and the boy and carried them outside.
Over them, in the east, a lone star blazed, bright as the sun it seemed. Because of its brilliance, Mary had to turn away. She went to shield the baby’s eyes, but he seemed to have no difficulty staring into the center of the glory above. His face shone with it. Mary squinted at him. Was he smiling?
“Listen,” Joseph said.
How did she not hear this inside the cave? This chorus of hundreds upon thousands, their voices emanating out of the brightness? Who sang—angels? All of creation?
When they returned to the cave, Mary asked Joseph to add more hay to the manger. She positioned the bundled boy atop the soft, golden straw and lowered herself gingerly to her knees.
“Shalom, my son, born of my body and pain. The angel of the Lord told me that in your lifetime you will be great and called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give you the throne of your father, King David, and you will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever. The angel said your kingdom will never end.”
She picked up the baby and pressed him to her heart. “But not yet. For now, you are mine.” She reached for Joseph’s hand. “Mine and my husband’s. Jesus, this is Joseph. He will be your abba here on earth. He is a kind man, a good man. He is my beloved and I am his. And you are ours. For now.”