A Christmas Story

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“Joseph. You’re awake – again.”
“Did I disturb you? I’m sorry Mary. I’ll be still. Go back to sleep – you need your rest.”
“Yes Joseph I do. But I also need to know why you’re sleeping so badly. Is something worrying you, something you haven’t told me?”
“No, nothing in particular.”
“Not the journey?”
“A little, perhaps. These godless Romans, telling everyone to go home to be counted. For what? Why can they not just ask where a man was born and be done with it? And your time will be very near. Of course I’m worried. And angry.”
“Yes that is true. All very true. But I know you Joseph bar Jacob. There’s something else and it is not a new thing, is it.”
“Hmmm. Where did you learn to look into people like that? You have such depths. New? No, it is not.”
“Oh Mary, I admit it – I have doubts. They go away and then come back to plague me. I’m afraid of how I will feel when I first look at the babe.”
“But Joseph, the angel. You may doubt me, but an angel of the Lord?”
“The angel was a dream, just a dream. A very powerful and deep dream, a dream unlike any I have dreamt before or since, but a dream for all that. Sometimes we dream about how we want things to be.
“And I don’t doubt you. It is very hard to explain – I know you believe this babe is the child of the Lord. But, well, things happen. I am a plain, practical man. I believe in what I can see, what I can touch, and hew and shape. I… it is all confusion, sometimes I believe, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes both at once, it seems. Help me Mary. Help me to believe. Tell me again how it was.”
Mary shifted in the bed, easing the weight of the child asleep in her womb, wondering how she could help her husband, who had been so good to her. Telling him again how the angel had spoken and how the Holy Spirit had covered her might settle him for a short time, but she wanted him to know in the way she knew. 
But she could not see a way. It seemed he would just have to suffer this, and she had to believe and did believe that the instant he saw little Jesus he and anyone else would know. While Joseph lay there, looking up at the rafters of their little room, she asked the Child within her what she could do. Almost before the question was formed she had the answer. Of course – it was obvious!
She took Joseph’s right hand in both of hers and looked at it in the dim light of the night filtering through the gaps in the shutter. She loved that hand, sometimes as hard as a spade but capable of such gentleness of touch and such fine work with timber, the right hand that could not only use tools but was itself a tool, the palm, the fingers, each part its own unit of measurement in his work. She held it to her cheek and kissed its palm.
Joseph just lay there looking at her, marvelling at her young beauty, still touched with a hint of childhood but with the strength and character of a woman.  As he watched, she put his hand upon her chest, just below her throat. As it lay there he could feel the beating of her heart, slow and steady.
Then she drew his hand down till it was resting on her round, swollen belly. Immediately the child kicked, just once. They smiled at each other. Joseph had forgotten all his troubles now, just marvelling at the thought of his life to come with this magnificent wife the Lord had seen fit to provide, with this child and, please God, many more.
Then Mary drew his hand down further. Joseph froze.
“Mary. No. Not during your time.  I can’t wait, but I’ll have to. There will be plenty of time.”
“No Joseph, not that. If you trust me, close your eyes and let me have your hand. Do you trust me?
“Yes, of course, but…”
“Then do as I say.”
The time of a few breaths passed. All of a sudden, Joseph was up like a sprung trap. One moment he was lying there rigid, eyes closed, the next he was on his knees on the bed staring at her like a man distraught.
“Lord, Lord forgive me! What kind of man am I, to doubt the word of an angel? How can the Lord forgive me? You are still a maiden! It is all true!”
“Yes I am, and it is, and the Lord is merciful. He will surely forgive a practical man his practical need to know. Now can you go to sleep?”
“Sleep? Sleep? How can you talk of sleep? I will wait for dawn and then go to synagogue, offer sacrifice and perform the rites of atonement. But we don’t have enough to give, not for this. Lord, what am I to do?”
“Listen to me Joseph. You will do nothing. You have done nothing wrong.  On the contrary, you have followed the words of the angel, even though you doubted. Who could not doubt? What is important is what you did, and you have done exactly what you should have because you are a righteous man.  We need our little enough store for the journey, and the babe. Don’t you understand? I was chosen, and so were you, by the Lord God himself. And you have followed His commands.”
 Her words seemed to wash over Joseph, leaving him light and clean, and suddenly deeply tired.
He lay down again beside Mary, turned to her, rested his hand lightly on her arm and closed his eyes. As he drifted off, he heard Mary whispering “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices…….”
“Joseph, they are getting closer together. Perhaps, five or six times an hour.  The baby will come soon.”
“We can hear many sounds from the town now – in less than half an hour we will be knocking on an inn gate. Will you last that long?”
“I think so. I don’t know. I wish Elizabeth were here.”
They were ascending a steady rise towards Bethlehem, whose lights they could see a couple of stadia ahead, but the road was poor, lacerated and deeply, dangerously rutted by the unaccustomed traffic. Mary winced each time the donkey put a hoof down heavily on the uneven ground. Joseph’s broad forehead was knitted with worry.
After what seemed an age, they came to the first inn on the outskirts of the town. It was humble affair, standing alone in a small group of houses. Each house had a well-fenced yard with a water trough; these were shepherds’ homes, and in the light of the early-rising moon the flocks could be seen dotted around the broad open expanses which lay all around.
It appeared that the inn had once been and perhaps still was an agriculturalist’s home. The rooms were in a separate wing added to the main building, which was approached by a broad staircase to the first floor; ground level was largely taken up by grain and tool storage and a byre housing a pair of oxen and a milk cow. Joseph’s heart sank as he saw a light behind the shutters of each room; the sound of loud talk filled the air. Someone was beating a drum softly and singing in one of the guest rooms.
“Joseph, help me down please,” called Mary. He ran to her side and she at once wrapped her arms around his neck. He lifted her easily and gently from the donkey’s back; she leaned both her arms on the animal’s back and breathed heavily in and out. The donkey stood still, as firm and steady as if it were something built rather than a free-moving beast. She rested her head on his neck, breathing in the sweet-musty donkey smell.
Joseph ascended the stairs and knocked loudly. He waited. Nothing. He knocked again, louder and longer this time. Soon the door swung open with a loud creak, to reveal a stocky man in his fifties, clad in a particularly dirty and wine-stained coat and an equally grubby round, flat felt hat. Though in all he was hardly a pleasant sight to behold, his eyes twinkled from the depths of his great white beard and crown of hair and when he spoke there was warmth aplenty.
“Peace be with you. But if it’s a room you want, I regret I cannot help you brother. Nor indeed, I fear, can any innkeeper in all Bethlehem. It’s a cold night to be sure but latecomers are having to take shelter where they can.
“I can feed you, we keep a plain but decent table, but then you’d be best heading into the town, where it will be a little warmer at least.”
“Sir, we are out of time. What are we to do?”
“Out of time, what do you mean, out of…” As his eyes took in Mary, leaning over the donkey’s back, her face creased as a contraction came, he understood and fell silent.
“How long, do you think?”
“Very soon. Within the hour, I expect although neither of us knows. It is our first.”
“Well, then we must do what we can. If you are not proud, the warmest place to be is down there in the manger. Three beasts and your donkey will do for a fire I should think. There’s no shortage of straw and I’ll have the boy bring some sack-cloth and we’ll see if we can’t get you some privacy. “
“Sir, you are gentle and good and we thank you with all our hearts. This child will be very special and you will have your reward in times to come.”
“Yes, well aren’t they all when they’re your own and as for reward, I can hardly merit much of that for a spot among the kine.”
“Sir I will be happy to pay as if for a room, for it will serve us as well as. We must hurry…”
“What, am I a Samaritan or Egyptian to charge a weary traveller of David’s people for a heap of straw? Please, spend your money on our good food by all means but that will be all. Now where is that boy? Eli, you scamp,” he shouted at the top of his considerable lungs. “Eli get here double smart, and bring the roll of sacking from the wool store. Eli! Get here, you!”
An hour later, Mary lay with the child on a bed of straw and a light rug. The boy, swaddled in white goats’ wool, gazed into her eyes with full, clear sight and understanding. It had been a quick, almost painless birth; what pain there was now seemed to have happened to someone else. She felt an unearthly joy. She knew now that her life, her real life, had only begun when the angel had spoken to her and she had felt herself covered with the Spirit. She understood as clearly as if the babe had spoken to her that her entire life, now, was to be love – love for the child, then the man, love for Joseph, love for everyone. Even, strange though it seemed to her, the Romans. Literally everyone. She felt another surge of joy, but again, as she had felt before, there was a shadow, too. Something dark in the distance, some terrible sorrow seemed to be way, way out there beyond her vision and reach.
She looked again at her little son and all thoughts simply washed out of her, all was forgotten.
Joseph was at the rough cloth curtain, gazing out.
“Mary, oh Mary, you must come and see this, something wonderful is happening to the whole world. The lights of heaven seem to have been turned up, as if every lamp was newly trimmed. Every star seems like a fire. The moon is huge and unimaginably beautiful. And I keep thinking I can hear music as if the very stars were singing, and yet when I listen harder, there’s nothing. Bring the babe; can you make it to over here?”
He turned to look at them. They were gone, at least as far as he and the world was concerned. They were in another world of their own, gazing at each other. He crossed the couple of paces and sank quietly to the ground beside them. She turned and looked at him, and smiled her beautiful smile.
“Peace be with you – is the Child in there?” A voice, firm, speaking in a foreign accent, was coming from just on the other side of the cloth. Joseph and Mary looked at each other, questioning.
Joseph rose and drew back the cloth. Three strange, exotic looking men, covered with the dust of long travel, stood before him. Some twenty or thirty paces away, clearly visible in the bright light, he saw a group of camels and a horse, attended by servants.
“Yes,” he said. “The Child is here.”