Six months after Joseph was visited by the angel, he found himself in a situation he would not have expected. He and Mary had been living together in the home he had built for them. They had celebrated a quiet wedding. In the beginning, people whispered about the child and the timing of the pregnancy. But both Joseph and Mary were such good, God-fearing people; they were so kind to others, so diligent in everything they did, that those whispers gradually died down.
Mary advanced in her pregnancy. In a difficult turn of events, the final weeks of her pregnancy coincided with a trip they both had to make to Bethlehem. The Roman emperor of the time had called for a census to be taken throughout the Empire. In order to be counted in the census, Joseph had to go to his ancestral village, Bethlehem. Bethlehem was the city where his ancestor David had lived. Joseph had to be counted there.
A Difficult Trip
Bethlehem was 90 miles south of Nazareth. For a typical traveler, it would have been a 4 ½ day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. For Joseph, traveling with a wife far along in her pregnancy, they could only cover about 10 miles a day. Meaning the journey took twice as long.
They began by heading east, toward the flat lands along the Jordan River. From there they descended south, paralleling the Jordan, until they reached the Dead Sea. From here they took a road around the western rim of the Dead Sea. Then they headed west, up and over the mountains that surrounded Jerusalem, before descending further south, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
It was an arduous trip. Discomfort met Mary at nearly every bump in the road. Joseph, along with his shoulder pack, carried the multitude of concerns of what might go wrong.
It was winter. Daytime temperatures were in the 30s. Snow and rains were frequent. Mary and Joseph were bundled in heavy woolen robes to fend off the elements. At night, there was the constant threat of wild animals, as well as bandits and robbers. They traveled under considerable distress; risks lurked on every side.
Yet 9 days later, they reached their destination: a small, crowded city whose streets the great King David once walked as a young man. They were in the City of Bethlehem, six miles south of Jerusalem. Mary was nearing the time of her delivery. She felt considerable pain and the circumstances did not help. The inns were all crowded, people were milling about, speaking loudly, impatiently. It was an unpleasant experience.
Joseph decided to pitch camp, so to speak, in a little stable on the edge of town where soujourners and villagers kept their travel animals. It was the quietest place he could find.
They arrived late in the day, a day and half before Joseph had to be counted for the census. They settled, ate the final portions of the food they had brought with them and took their uncomfortable rest. Joseph built a makeshift bed for Mary, made of thick, clean straw with their travel cloaks thrown over it.
Mary was glad the travel was over. It had taken a toll on her. She felt like she had aged a year over the journey. They both slept through the night and enjoyed an uneventful day the following day. They had relatives there, who were also in Bethlehem for the census. The relatives saw to it, with Joseph, that Mary’s needs were met and that she was as comfortable as possible that day.
Night fell. Again Mary and Joseph rested – theirs was the peaceful rest of two tired souls whose hearts were abandoned into the hands of God. In the morning, Joseph went to the counting station. Mary’s breathing grew heavy.
A Child Is Born
By the time he returned, Mary’s labor had started. It was 3 pm. It was mercifully short. Joseph asked one relative to keep people away. He asked another to help with the delivery, to serve as a midwife. Mary’s breath sped up, Joseph and the midwife helped her slow it down.
“Mary, you’re almost there. Breathe deeply, let your heart settle into your womb. The child will be born soon,” the midwife said, gently.
Mary fell into a kind of prayer, like an ark of papyrus floating down a swift river. She let herself be carried along this river of life.
“Ohh! Hhhhhmm….,” she groaned. She breathed. The midwife dabbed her forehead with a wet cloth. Joseph prayed. The donkeys nearby stomped and snorted and shifted in the hay.
“Mary, he’s coming! I see his head! I see his head! O, Mary, just a little longer. Breathe, my cousin! Breathe, push! Let your heart drop into your womb. Bring your child into the world, Mary. Push!”
“Ohhh! Aahh! Ohhaahh!” Three great pushes in the dirt of a stable near Bethlehem. A worried father. A calm midwife. A weary mother. A small gathering of relatives, respectfully gathered at a distance.
A cry. The cry of a baby. The sweetest cry that ever cracked the waves of sound. It trickled like water, upon the face of the muddy manger. Like the first chirp, at dawn, of the loveliest bird that ever flew in Eden.
“Uhwaaa! Uh-uh-uhwaa! Uh-uh-uhwaa!”
It was a boy.
“Mary, your son is born. It’s a boy! Mary, you have a son!” said the mid-wife.
“Mary, Jesus is born. Our son, Jesus, is born!” exclaimed Joseph. He had just named him, as the angel gave him the mission to do. Joseph had stepped into his fatherhood.
The midwife cleaned the child, Jesus, with some cloths, then lifted him to Mary’s breast. Mary’s eye’s widened, her arms opened, she took Jesus into her arms, close to her chest and held him. She closed her eyes and repeated a phrase in her heart that she often said.
“I praise you, God, the Lord Almighty. Let it be to me according to your will.”
The child fell to a kind of purr against the chest of his exhausted mother. In a few moments, he and she fell asleep.
“Let them rest,” said the midwife to Joseph. “That is the rest of the blessed. It doesn’t often happen. But in peaceful deliveries I have seen this happen before. Let them rest. Let’s ask all the others to go back to where they are staying. They can visit tomorrow.”
It was dusk. A first star had emerged, low in the southwestern sky. It was a great star. It seemed to hang there, like an ornament placed upon a tree by a mighty hand. A sign that something great had happened.
Mary rested. The midwife cut the umbilical cord and cleaned the wound. The child hardly stirred. A new cord was being formed: heart to heart, between the child and his mother.
Both Joseph and the midwife stepped away from where Mary lay. They whispered about what things needed to be done next. What to feed them. When they could travel again.
Hours passed. The thick of night fell.
Shepherds in the Fields of David
Out in the hills, a 30-minute walk from Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching their night watches over their flock. Several hundred years earlier, another young shepherd had roamed these hills. He was eventually plucked by the keen eye of Samuel and anointed as King of Israel. But he began as a mere youth, shepherding his flock, fending off lions, sleeping beneath the stars of the night-time sky.
This group of shepherds was like that young David. Insignificant. Lowly.
But to them, a great mystery was about to unfold. In the great silence of a country night – no houses around, no lights, no travelers – these shepherds were huddled together, watching over their flock.
Suddenly, a figure stood before them. Clothed in white. Tall. Powerful. Bright as a flame in the thick of night. There was light coming from him, shining from him, enveloping the shepherds. As though they were now in a pool of light and that man in white was at the center of it. The shepherds shook with fear. Their hearts quaked. They wanted to run.
“Do not be afraid,” he said. “Behold, I proclaim good news to you. A great joy for all people. For today, in the city of David, a Savior is born who is Christ and Lord. I give you a sign. Go, into the city, you will find an infant wrapped in birth linens. He will be lying in a manger. This is the child.”
So spoke the luminous man. Then, in a blink, there appeared with him a vast army of luminous figures, an army of heaven. They burst into a chorus of praise that sounded like a clap of thunder, like a pounding surf in a mighty storm. It pulsed through the skies and engulfed, in sound, the shepherds who were already bathed in light.
“Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men and women, his beloved.”
And, then, as fast as they appeared, just as fast they were gone. In an instant. Like a pulse of lighting. They had suddenly appeared and now – like lightning – suddenly they were gone.
Let Us Go to Bethlehem
The shepherds looked at one another. They had all seen it. They had all heard it. It was not imagined.
“Men, there are angels in this place,” said the eldest shepherd, a man named Malthus. “Them were the angels of the God. I dunno much about God, but them were angels – that much I know.”
“Let’s go into the city. To Bethlehem. As the great angel told us. Let’s see what is there to see.”
They left the youngest to continue the night watch and ran, with haste, toward the city.
It was midnight.
Mary had woken from her initial rest. She was nursing Jesus, her little child, wrapped in white linens. The midwife was by her side. Joseph stood at the entrance of the little stable, keeping watch. Pacing. He hadn’t slept. He looked tired.
The shepherds came up to Joseph, as they entered the city. They peered past him and saw a woman lying in a bed of straw, lit by the light of a single lamp. 10 feet from several donkeys. A child, in white linens, cradled in her arm.
This must be the place, they thought.
“Sir,” Malthus asked Joseph, still catching his breath. “Sir, has a child been born here? Has a child been born today, in this place?”
“Who are you? Why do you ask?” responded Joseph, on his guard.
“Sir, we are shepherds. We saw a vision of angels. Just now. In the fields. Over there,” he pointed. “They told us a child was born today. A Savior. The Christ. The Lord. That he would be here, in the city of David. In a stable, wrapped in white linens. Is that your child? May we see him?”
Joseph, no longer surprised by the mysterious ways of God, immediately yielded, welcoming these strangers as though they were family.
“Yes there is a child,” said Joseph. “His mother is over there. The child was born today. Yes, you may see him, but quietly and quickly, please. He and his mother need their rest.”
Joseph led the shepherds into the cave. The midwife looked up, concerned.
They Have Been Sent by Angels
“It’s OK,” Joseph said to the midwife, “They have been sent by angels.”
Then, to the shepherds, he said: “This is Mary, my wife. And this is Jesus,” he gestured toward them both with his hand. He was a proud husband and father.
The shepherds were at a loss for what to do. They wanted to kneel, but they were not kneeling men. They wished they could speak, but they were not men of words. One cupped his hands over his mouth, his eyes wide.
Malthus, the eldest, spoke:
“Maam, we are poor shepherds. My name is Malthus. We ain’t important men. We got no learning. Little money. But tonight we was keeping the night watch over our flock. A man, a mighty man – an angel of God he was – suddenly stands before us. He spoke mighty words. Said not to be afraid. Said he brought good news. Said it would bring joy to everyone. We ain’t never seen anything like it. He said, today, this day, a Savior was born. Christ and Lord, right fellas?” he turned to his companions.
“He said Savior. Christ and Lord, those were the words,” replied the shepherd who had cupped his hands to his mouth.
“I ain’t too sure what those words mean, Maam,” continued Malthus, “but them were the words he used. And that weren’t all. After he spoke to us, there was, there was …” he struggled for words.
“There was like an army of soldiers in white, all lit up like candles, but from the inside,” continued the other shepherd.
“Yes, thank you. It were like that. An army of soldiers, all lit up like candles. They were lighted from the inside. They lit up the night. Could you see it from here?”
“We saw nothing,” said Joseph, “but I believe you.”
“Thank ye, sir,” said Malthus. “For we all saw it, we did. We know what we seen. Anyway those angel soldiers, they broke out into a battle cry – like a song. But it sounded like a mighty roar. Said something like Glory to God, the high God. And peace on earth to men and women.”
“’His beloved,’ added the other shepherd. “’They said ‘His beloved. Peace on earth to men and women, his beloved.’”
“That’s right. They did say that,” concluded Malthus. “Said men and women were his beloved.”
“We just had to come see this child. This must be some special child.” Malthus concluded.
“He is a special child,” said Joseph.
“Thank you. Thank you for coming,” said Mary meekly. “Thank you for coming to tell us that.”
“Maam, I feel like telling the whole world. Most amazing thing I ever saw. Angels from heaven come to us and now we find it just like they said. Ain’t that just more than you ever saw?”
“It is a wonder,” said Joseph. “God works wonders on earth. It is for us to see and respond. I thank you for responding. However, I think it would be best not to talk much about what you have seen to others. They might not believe you. And, for the child, it is better to keep things quiet. But thank you for coming to tell us. We believe you. And your testimony is a gift to us, a grace at the end of a long struggle.”
The Shepherds Return to the Fields
Now, gently gesturing, he said: “I hate to do this, but may I ask that we step back outside so my wife and the baby can rest?”
“Yes, sir, yes sir, thankee sir. We understand, sir.”
They all walked out quietly and then bade a hearty farewell, with congratulations to Joseph. Then the shepherds headed back to the fields. Joseph watched as they left.
As he stood there, Joseph thought back to when he too had seen a man in white, lit up like a candle from the inside. Yes, that was a good way of describing it. Lit up, from the inside.
Joseph stood there, soaking in what had just happened. The weight of it all – the painful, excruciating journey, the labor, the birth, now this revelation from the shepherds – it was heavy. He would have to sit with it. But now his attention was on Mary. On doing what they needed to do so they could go home.
He stepped back into the stable, toward Mary. She was lost in thought. Eyes cast down, gazing on Jesus who was resting tranquilly in her arms. Her right hand was stroking his head, while her heart passed over the words: Savior, Christ, The Lord.
The Scriptural Text of this Story: Luke 2: 1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus – that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.”
A Christmas Prayer
Jesus, with the Shepherds and the Angels, I stand in the light of heaven and I adore you. With Mary, I hold your coming in my heart.