The night everything changed.
The thick, damp air was the perfect mirror of your heart. Your head hung low and the sway of the mule rocked it side to side; the reins rubbed back and forth between your deeply calloused hands. You were known back home for being the optimist: chin always up, worries always down, but this betrayal stung deeper than anything you had felt before.
It was late in the night. After the sun had set, you began searching for an inn to stay for the night, but the next town was further than you anticipated. It had been so long since you traveled this far from home, and you usually were not traveling with a pregnant woman.
Just thinking of the word sent sharp pricks through your nerves. Pregnant. Mary was pregnant. You didn’t believe it for the longest time, hoping this was some cruel joke, but once she began showing, her body became a daily reminder of the painful reality: the baby was not yours.
You loved Mary. You deeply, and emphatically loved Mary, but when she first approached you with this news you were left optionless. This was disgraceful! A man and woman, not yet married, having a child. Shameful. Even more shameful was a woman going outside of the one she was to be committed to and having a child with another. Who does that anyways?
You look up from your somber position and glance back to where where Mary was riding her own mule. She is silent, she had not spoken the entire trip. You notice small winces of pain flash across her face each time her mule takes a swaying step. She is so brave. Something inside of you makes you want to jump off your mule and apologize for everything you said to her that night she told you, to remind her that you would stay with her no matter whose child this was, to tell her you were willing to runaway to another village where nobody could talk about your family, no more gossip, no more dismissed looks, no more shame!
Instead you look forward again.
There are subtle signs of life along the road: bundles of hay, sheep markings and hoof prints carved in the dirt, and harvesting tools stowed to the side of the road. You knew you were just on the outskirts of a town.
You planned to divorce her; quietly of course. You never would publicly shame your Mary, but how were you suppose to move on with life knowing your love found love with someone else? But that wasn’t the case, was it? No, you remember that night all too clearly. The night the angel appeared to you. You had heard stories growing up of angels speaking to our patriarchs, to Abraham, to Moses, but to you? Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth? Thinking of the night still gave you chills.
“This is happening to fulfill God’s promise,” the angel had said to you, “you shall call the child Jesus.”
BUT WHY DID IT HAVE TO HAPPEN TO ME!
You have to bite your lip to keep the words from stumbling out of your mouth. You had everything figured out! Life was set up to go just as planned. All you wanted was to be a little carpenter, living in a little town, with a little wife and family, and live a little life!
You shift your weight on the mule searching for a comfortable position. Lights were beginning to pop up in the distance, you were now breaching the town. “Perfect timing,” you think as light kisses of rain begin pecking your skin.
“Joseph, darling. Are we stopping here for the night?”
Her soft voice nearly brings tears to your eyes. Oh, how you have missed hearing her sweet voice.
“Yes.” you respond, more abruptly than you had anticipated. Why were you such an ass at times?
Could this truly be a child of God growing inside of your sweet Mary? Just the thought of it makes you feel miniscule. Nothing about this made sense. What prophecy was God fulfilling by impregnating an insignificant carpenter family from Nazareth? What good comes from Nazareth?
You are relieved from your troubled mind by the sight of an inn. The rain begins falling at a steadier rhythm as you unmount from your mule and help Mary off her’s. You guide her to the front of the building when she hunches in pain.
“Joseph, I need a moment. Go inside to get us a room while I rest here.”
You obey. Just as you would obey the angel. Just as you supposedly are obeying God by staying with Mary through this. You duck your head inside the doorway of the inn. The room was small, but had an attractive spice lingering in the air and a soft light flickered in the far corner. Sitting at a small wooden table was a man, roughly the same age as yourself, whittling on a small block of wood.
The man looks up from his task as you step inside the door and meets you with a warm smile.
“It’s quite late to be coming into town, but it’s lucky timing it seems,” he says as he motions to a window. You notice the rain had picked up in the short amount of time you had been inside.
“Yes,” you respond, “my wi-, my woman and I are looking for a dry place to lay our heads tonight. She is with child and we really could use -”
“I’m sorry, sir,” he interrupts, “all our rooms are filled this evening. I would have to kick someone out to make room for you.”
You feel your body deflate. Why won’t anything go your way! Just once, God! Just give me something here, anything!
“I understand,” you muster the strength to say, “is there any place you have that we can at least get out of the rain? Please, sir, anything!”
You can see the sympathy in the innkeepers eyes. He sets his carving tools on the table and slowly stands from the table. He is taller than you thought, standing a foot or so over you. He has a thick brown beard that covers the entirety of his neck. His shoulders are wide, but not as wide as the gut that sits perched on top of belt tightened firmly around his waist.
“I’ll tell you what,” he responds as he walks over to the window he had pointed to moments ago, “there is a barn out back. It’s nothing special, and the animals are in for the night, but you and the lady are welcome to stay there.”
Your eyes grow wide and you can feel a smile forming on your lips. “Yes, thank you, yes that will be perfect.”
“Just meet me around back in about 5 minutes, I’ll just go tidy things up a bit out there,” he says as he wraps a shawl around his shoulders and opens the door along the backside of the inn. The rain outside is coming down much harder now making you all the more grateful for a dry place to sleep this evening.
You exit the inn through the front door to find Mary still hunched over, wincing in pain.
Color had begun fading away from her face and you could see sweat forming along her hairline despite the chill that hung in the air.
“Mary,” you say, “I found us a place to sleep for the evening. It’s nothing special but it will at least keep us dry from the -“
“Joseph! Joseph my darling, I think the baby is coming.”
You were not prepared for the words. Nothing could prepare you for the words. The deep roar of thunder in the distance shakes you to action. You are quickly by her side, lifting her up in both your arms. The dirt was becoming softer from the continual rain. With Mary in your arms, you rounded the side of the inn to where the barn could be seen down a slight hill.
Lightening cracked in the distance. The dirt had turned to mud and you had to concentrate to keep your balance. Mary’s moans of pain kept you upright each time you felt your feet giving out. “We are almost there,” you tell her, despite the barn still being further than you preferred.
You notice the main door to the barn had been left cracked when you finally make it there. There is a subtle, golden hue coming from inside and the thick smell of livestock hits you as you walk through the entrance. The innkeeper was nowhere in sight, but there were plenty of curious eyes darting in your direction as you lay Mary down on the small pile of hay nearest to the light.
The barn is smaller than you imagined. There are three stalls lining both sides, a large walkway through the middle, and a small area in the back that you cannot make out through the darkness. The small lantern hanging from a peg illuminates a small entrance way of the barn. A couple leather bridle hang along the far wall and a dozen yard tool line the opposite one. From what you can tell, four of the six stables are occupied. Light snorts let you know a pig is in the occupants midst, but it’s hard to distinguish the other from the mere shuffling of their feet.
Mary’s scream breaks you away from your surveillance.
[and the world goes black]
The baby is wailing when he emerges. You quickly strip off your cloak and swaddle his tiny body in it. You hear the animals shift uncomfortably in their stables at the sound of something that had not been there before. Besides their shuffling, the barn falls eerily quiet. The storm outside had subsided and light drip of water could be heard falling off the edge of the roof.
Mary was quiet now, too. You look to where she is still laying, her eyes are still wide, but more in anticipation than anything. Understanding the look, you take the baby to where she is. She takes him in her arms and gives him a look that you had never seen her give before. You are unable to describe it. Unbreakable, unbendable, unabashed, sacrificial look of love. The look of a mother to her first child, you assume.
It hit you in that moment. You look down to the child wrapped up in the coat you had taking off of yourself. His skin is soft, his eyes are wandering, he stretches a bit before nestling down to fall asleep. Completely vulnerable, completely dependent, completely exposed; without any opinions, without any voice, without anything.
“Hello, Jesus,” you whisper, “hello, God.”