Every village needs a carpenter, and I am him. There are others, of course, with all my skills and more, but they have opted to gather as much Roman coin as they can by constructing the elegant city of Sepphoris, a few miles to the north. When local Nazareth people need a door made or a wall repaired, they must - alas - turn to me. My abilities and experience are less than adequate but they improve, though I sorely miss the mentorship of my father. I don’t take their complaints much to heart. I am young, recently married, and would be content with a simple life.
But simple it proves not to be, more like Job with his troubles. The complications with my wife Mary began when we were yet engaged. I have watched over her from a discreet distance - but with interest - all her life, knowing we were intended. Mary grew from a happy childhood to a young woman’s reputation for kindness and diligence. The thought of marrying such a one elated me, for - as the Teacher writes - a wife of noble character who can find?
That is why the rumours were so hard to believe. I had not seen Mary for a while, then heard she had gone to visit her relative Elizabeth, south of Jerusalem. News came that Elizabeth was expecting a child in her old age, which was unusual enough. But now people were entertaining a darker reason Mary had gone so suddenly to her cousin - could she also be with child? I refuted them angrily, knowing full well the impossibility. But the rumours persisted, hurting my business and my pride.
Several months later, Mary returned to Nazareth and all the rumours were confirmed - she was indeed with child. My heart broke and visions of a satisfying domestic life fled away like the mist over Mt Hermon. How could this be? When I confronted her, she gave me some wild story that simply added to my sadness. When she saw that I didn’t buy it, she broke into tears. I watched her helplessly.
Somehow, I could not find it in my heart to condemn this girl who was intended for me. I determined to break off our engagement and send her back to the safety of her extended family south of Jerusalem. Yes, I knew the Law and honoured the commandments, but I could not bear to see her disgrace in the village if she were to stay. Her journey south would cost me more than I could afford but I could not do otherwise. Then, in the midst of my difficulties, something happened that - rather than solve my dilemma - made everything that much more complex.
I was not sleeping well those days, as you can imagine. One night, I awoke - so I thought - to the brightest moon shining on my face through the window. But it was not the moon; it was a glowing man, sitting at the foot of the bed. His words seared into my heart like an iron and they burn there even now as I repeat them. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” he told me, “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
It was the Lord! Or his messenger. I could not say a word in response and must have lost consciousness. I awoke to the first crow of the rooster as usual and wondered if it was a dream. But waking, I could still feel the warmth of his presence, and those reassuring, alarming words smouldered in my heart. The message must be true, if nothing else because it was so impossible. Conceived by the Spirit! Mary had not betrayed our troth! But who would this child be? Yeshua was a common enough name, but he would be no common child.
What I was about to do was as insane as Abraham lifting his hand to slay his promised son Isaac. By command, I would go and take Mary home as my wife. Be father to this wonder child. When I told Mary this, she was overjoyed. But those next months were difficult on so many levels. It was a small and less than festive wedding celebration, just a quiet family affair. The fact that I married her satisfied the villager’s thirst for justice, but Mary suffered derision and I received more than one black eye defending her. At the same time, it was so strange for us to live in the same house as any married couple, yet without the intimacy. I had determined not to touch her until after the child was born. Mary seemed relieved.
Life in the village was trying. Mary had none of the support an expectant mother should enjoy. I was a spineless fool to some, to others an irresponsible rascal. Things became so bad for us that when the Roman proclamation was made, I could have jumped for joy. A reason to leave the village! I was required by the Romans to return to my family home for the census, and since I was in the line of King David, that meant travelling to the small village of Bethlehem. No matter that Mary’s presence there was not required, nor that her time was close. I would not leave Mary to the scorn and questionable care of our village. We would both travel to Bethlehem, even if we had to have the baby on the way.
I was thankful that we were not the only ones who needed to travel south. We caravanned with several of our extended families and others who also needed to show up in Bethlehem. Among us, we had a cart that I hoped might ease the passage for my very pregnant wife. I borrowed as many sheepskins as I could to create a nest for her. Nothing proved comfortable for long, however. Mary took the cart until she couldn’t anymore, then walked until she couldn’t anymore, then rode our little donkey until she couldn’t anymore. The closer we came to Jerusalem, the more exhausted and uncomfortable she looked, despite my every effort.
Nagging my thoughts all the way was the reality that, as much as Bethlehem was our ancestral home, we no longer had family living there. The small village would be overrun with David’s descendants. Would we find a place to stay? As we found out, Bethlehem was overrun with more than the family of David; there were Romans everywhere. The word was that they feared an insurrection, and what better place to make a statement than in the town of King David?
As soon as we arrived, our group dispersed. To my dismay, Mary was having a particularly bad time of it just at that moment and we had to find a corner for her to rest. Evening came on suddenly as it always does, the streets emptied and there we were: Mary, her inept husband and the donkey who refused to move another inch until dinner was provided. This was the nightmare I had imagined all the way here. Despairing, I lifted my heart with a wordless prayer, like Nehemiah before the king, pleading for a bit of compassion on our plight.
It did not come immediately, nor in a way I could possibly have imagined. There were few houses in the village large enough to accommodate guests and I tried them all. Full. So sorry, if only you had come an hour ago. Have you tried the Rabbi? Sorry, we have no room, no room, no room. I found myself on the very edge of town looking at an unpromising house backed into the side of the hill. Out of options, I knocked and received the old refrain. For you and your wife? Sorry, there is not an inch of room. I turned away and heard the word I was hoping for. But... let me show you what I have. It might do.
I followed him around the back of the house, wondering if he expected me to climb the hill. Instead, there was a dark opening that he lighted with the lamp he carried. It was a low cave that recessed into the hillside. Straw covered the floor, and the man’s few livestock were already resting in their wooden stalls. He looked at me and shrugged. What else could I do? He left me the lamp and a flask of oil for when I returned with Mary. I went to break the news to her.
As I approached the street where I had left Mary, my heart was frozen by a sharp, piercing cry in the dark. Mary! I rushed to her and found her breathing hard and shaking. She looked up at me with a pained smile. “He is coming.” I don’t know how I got her on the donkey, nor how she managed to stay on through two more contractions. We reached the cave and I carried her in and made a nest with straw and sheepskins and our one blanket. She laughed when she saw our “room,” but then doubled over once again in agony.
In the synagogue, men pray in thanks to God that he did not create them as women, which I always thought uncharitable. That night I discovered the true reason to be grateful: men could never endure the anguish of childbirth. I could hardly bear watching. Again and again and again, seemingly with no end, Mary laboured. It is ironic that this suffering was decreed in the Garden right after God promised that the Seed of the woman would usher in Satan’s defeat. She is the bravest of souls who bears a child.
Between contractions, Mary held me close, breathing hard. How unusual this first intimacy between us! We wept together, we laughed when we could. I wiped the sweat off her face, which looked up at me with love and gratitude. And then her face would go blank with pain and it would happen all over again. This went on and on, deep into the night; the wait seemed interminable, though the women who came to visit later would comment that Mary was fortunate to have such short-term labour.
Then, with a convulsion that I thought must rip her in two, and with a cry that did the same to my heart, Mary pushed with all her strength, and I was there for her and felt the warmth of blood and the rushing of tiny head and arms and legs into my arms. I didn’t know what to do but thankfully he did, as he burst into a healthy and welcome cry.
Something instinctive took over - I dealt with the cord that bound him to Mary, then laid him in her loving arms. She gazed at him and breathed the words spoken over her, words I had found unbelievable nine months before, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
A light flickered in the doorway and a woman’s voice asked if we needed anything. “Come and see,” I invited her. When she took in the sight of Mary with the baby in her arms, the blood and the mess, she was beside herself with excitement and practicality. In moments she had gathered up the afterbirth and soiled blanket, rushed out and returned with several more delighted women, bearing warm water and clean cloths and more blankets.
I was made to get out of the way for a while. As I stepped back, bemused by the scene and wondering at the great peace I felt inside, I nearly stumbled over a small wooden box, roughly constructed, the neglected feeding manger of one of the animals. I cleaned it out as best I could, found some fresh straw to make a bed in it, and brought it to Mary. The women laughed, but took the box and made it comfortable with a sheepskin and blanket. They nestled the child there, who was now tightly wrapped in strips of cloth, and set him beside Mary. Then seeing her eyes close in exhaustion, the women whispered and tittered their way out of the cave.
We were alone again. No - never to be alone again. He would be the One who would never leave us or forsake us, who would be with us to the end of the age. But those realizations came slowly for Mary and me. For now, watching over my sleeping wife and gurgling adopted son, I was overwhelmed with love and joy and relief. He is not mine, the thought stirred in me; rather, I am his. All is well, in a cave that was meant for livestock, far, far from home.
I suppose I slept. I woke to the sound of new visitors, men’s voices this time. And such men as I normally would not want near my wife and son. I went to the entrance to confront them - shepherds, hired hands no less, ruffians - and they told me a tale that again seemed unbelievable but must be true, it was so strange. I invited them in and they gathered around Mary and the baby in the box.
Mary stirred, saw us and gasped, but I quickly reassured her and told the tale. We shared something in common with these men - they too were visited by messengers of God. The amazing part was it would be this very manger and the borrowed strips of cloth that would tell the shepherds they were in the right place. Here they would find the Saviour who was born to them, who was the Messiah, the Lord. The heavenly messengers spoke of great glory to God and peace to the people of his favour.
These rough shepherds, of the type who were likely not welcome in the town, were melted and mesmerized by the sight of this baby in a feed box. They whispered their delight in the child, looked with affectionate eyes upon the mother, thumped my back in congratulation. I think they would have stayed the rest of the night had I not pointed out that Mary’s eyes were again closed in sleep. They tiptoed out of the cave, but once outside raised their voices in excitement, not caring who they woke at that late hour.
Of course, all their noise roused Mary again. I snuggled in close beside her for warmth and protection, and we gazed at the child, hearts full of wonder and joy. Mary put it well later that morning, that he could not have come in any better way.