Once Upon a Time in Bethlehem

By Tom Lawson

Author’s Note: With apologies to those who insist on sticking to what we actually know about important biblical events, the following is offered in the spirit of the season.

Mary still weakly held on to Joseph’s hand. Trembling, mostly caused by sheer exhaustion, still came in waves. Joseph dabbed the sweat off her face and tried to smooth her hair.

He’d been so wonderful the whole long night. She knew he was as scared as she was, but he tried hard not to sound like it. He had even wrapped the child up in the strips of cloth, just like he’d seen the midwives do for babies back in Nazareth. The baby, her son, Yeshua—she’d have to get used to calling him that now—was quietly sleeping a few feet away in the soft hay of a feeding trough.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

But still she didn’t open her eyes. She didn’t look at him. She just couldn’t. She was all eaten up inside with an overwhelming sense of regret. Of all the mistakes she’d made in her short life, she knew this must have been by far the worst.

She’d ignored her mother’s advice about babies not always coming exactly on time and decided to accompany Joseph on the trip to Bethlehem. Two or three days’ journey each way, even traveling slowly. He had to sign some forms related to the official tax registers. She’d been sure she would have time to make it back home, or to at least make some local contacts. But here she was, in a stable, no one with her but Joseph, giving birth to her first child. And not just any child.

Stupid Blunder

The angel’s words now seemed like some distant dream. Another lifetime. It had only been a little over eight months ago. And that dream came to Joseph a few weeks later. But, after that, nothing. No more voices. No new visions. Nothing. How was she supposed to have known what to do?

After she’d come back to Nazareth from her three months’ visiting with Elizabeth and Zechariah, she’d halfway expected some additional word. Some sign. Directions. At least a few words that everything was still going according to whatever plan she’d become a part of. But there had only been weeks of one ordinary day after another.

She was sure now the last-minute decision to go with Joseph had been a stupid blunder on her part. Everything that had happened since they’d left Nazareth told her that. The first contractions had started before they arrived. The town was absolutely packed with people. No room at the only inn, and no one offering any other place to stay.

Except, of course, here. A stable!

Can God ever forgive me for this? she thought for the thousandth time that long night.

Like all Jewish girls, she’d always envisioned this moment with her mother, smiling and chattering happily, several of her sisters, and one of the village’s wise old midwives all hovering over her. Her husband would be somewhere nearby, worriedly pacing the floor, and whispering countless prayers, as other men stood around to offer moral support. There would have been fresh cloths, a clean bed, the smell of fresh spices in the room, and all those wise words from those who had been through this so many times before.

Her circumstances were a sign to anyone with sense that she’d been surprised and unprepared that her time would come on this very night. Any thought of going on to Zechariah’s house in another Judean village not far from Jerusalem was out of the question. They didn’t even know how to find a local midwife. The sleepy man who led them here said he sure didn’t know any. He had no intention of knocking on doors in the middle of the night to find one.

As wonderful as it may have been to play a role in the unfolding plans of the Most High, it was surely just as terrible to believe you had blundered badly and messed up those plans. The smell of straw and animals that surrounded her made that conclusion obvious. Who ever heard of a king born in such a place?

Surprise Visit

The sudden tension she felt in Joseph’s hand told her he’d heard the voices even before she did. There were men somewhere nearby. A group of them, from the sounds. And they seemed to be getting closer.

She squeezed Joseph’s hand, opened her eyes, and looked at him. She could see he was afraid, too. They were strangers here. But, even back in Nazareth, a group of men walking the streets at night was something you’d try very hard to avoid.

To her horror, the sounds got louder and louder, until they seemed right outside, and then suddenly stopped. Joseph began to stand up to grab the baby. But, before he could take even a step, the door to the stable began to be pushed open. She fought back a gasp of fear as a huge head appeared.

The man was big. Really big. Rough beard. Missing teeth. Her first thought was he must be some kind of criminal. A thief. Or, maybe, something a lot worse.

“Excuse us, Ma’am. Sir. Uh, well, I mean . . .” The big man’s head disappeared amid whispers and scuffling out in the street. “Give me a minute, Judah. The group chose me to ask the questions, but if you think you could do a better job.” Another burst of loud whispers died away, and the head came back around the door.

“What I mean to say, Ma’am, is,” he paused a second or two as if uncertain how to phrase the question. “Did either of you two happen to hear a heavenly host a few minutes ago?”

Mary glanced at Joseph, whose face showed the same confusion she felt. She had no idea what the big man was talking about.

“Uh, no. I didn’t think so,” the man continued. As he talked, the door pushed slowly open all the way, and a group of six or seven men shuffled into the room. They all looked rough, but they seemed awkward and embarrassed. They kept their eyes cast downward toward the stable floor.

“Well, you see, we’re all shepherds. We live hereabouts.”

“We were keeping watch over our flocks last night,” a voice came from the back of the group.

“Judah, am I telling this or are you?” the big man said as he turned around.

“Sorry, Jonathan. You are.”

“As I was saying. We were out keeping watch over our flocks when suddenly, well, all I can say is, I promise you we hadn’t been passing the wineskin. But, there was this fella, all white and all.

“‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. Mind you, this fella shows up in the middle of the night, out of nowhere, surrounded by this fierce white light, and then tells us not to be afraid. Well, anyway, he goes on and tells us he’s bringing good news of great joy.”

“He’s bringing what?” Joseph asked.

But, even as he spoke, Mary’s heart was already racing. She held her breath as the shepherd continued.

“News, sir. About him,” and the man gestured toward the manger. As he kept talking, Mary saw the other men start to go down to their knees. One after another. Some of them putting their faces all the way to the ground.

“The Promised One has come. A Savior. The Messiah. Born right here in Bethlehem, he tells us. ‘And this will be a sign,’ he goes on. ‘You’ll find him wrapped in the cloths of a newborn lying down in a manger.’ And, if you forgive me, Ma’am, there aren’t that many stables in Bethlehem.”

“The heavenly host. Tell her about the heavenly host,” a kneeling man whispered.

“Oh, yeah,” the big man blushed. “It was like a huge army that seemed to cover the whole sky. And they all were shouting, ‘Glory to God in the highest’ and, well, it was quite a sight, I don’t mind telling you. Never thought I’d live to see this day come.”

Sobs of Joy

Mary couldn’t fight back the tears any longer, and she began to shake with great sobs. The big man stopped, looking horrified that he’d somehow said something that had made this young mother upset.

“It’s all right,” Mary managed to say between the sobs. “I just thought I’d messed up the plan of God. I thought he was disappointed in me, or worse.”

Mary turned and looked at the man she loved, letting her eyes meet his, “You know what this means, Joseph? It means we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be. exactly. He had it all planned. The whole thing. He really did want the child to be born right here.”

The baby made a small cough as he slept, and even the big man now dropped slowly to his knees, his face filled with wonder.

Tom Lawson serves on the faculty of Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.

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