Merry Christmas, all. I hope you’ve had a wonder-filled day. This is the last post for Full of Grace. It’s now available as an ebook. Or you can click here to read the first draft from the beginning. Enjoy.
* * *
The donkey kicks up gravel from the road, causing Mary to cough.
“Are you alright?” Joseph asks, stopping the animal.
She clears her throat and nods her head, not wanting him to worry any more than he should. They were behind schedule because of her and now had lost step with caravan.
“I’m fine,” she manages.
“We can stop and rest if you need to,” he offers.
She shakes her head.
“No, I can continue. I would like to walk, though.”
Mary holds out her hand and Joseph helps her down. She joins her husband up front in leading the animal towards Bethlehem. They were not too far now; still it seemed they had been on the road for weeks. Their pace had been slow, though, as they were now, slow and sure.
She puts her hand on her back. It had been hurting now for a couple of hours, but had hoped by walking, she could alleviate it. A sudden pain hits her and Mary stops, reaching her arm out to Joseph. She takes a hold of his arm and squeezes.
After a long moment, the pain subsides and she releases Joseph’s arm. She had been experiencing similar pressure for the past few days, but this was by far the worst, almost like the pain her doda felt when her time of fulfillment came and John was born.
Her breath catches in her throat as the realization hits her – the child was coming…now!
No, no, no, she thinks, her hands on the underside of her belly, as if holding the child in.
“Mary, what’s wrong?”
The concern in his voice is unmistakable, as is the apprehension in his eyes. Mary doesn’t have to tell him she’s in labor – he sees it; and with a nervous push towards the donkey, he says, “Let’s find a room for you.”
His concern now turned to panic, Joseph rushes to the last inn. It’s dark and late; and Mary’s pain has intensified. She cannot walk, but only holds onto the donkey as she waits for him by the well. Joseph knocks on the door, praying there is a vacancy for them. All the other guesthouses were full. Everyone, it seemed, had arrived in Bethlehem to register, leaving them without lodgings.
Joseph bangs on the door when no one immediately responds.
The door swings opens. A burly man appears.
“What?” he asks with disgust.
“I need a room.”
“Yeah? You and everyone else in Judaea. Get out of here; there’s no room here,” the man states gruffly and starts to close to the door. Joseph steps up and blocks his way.
“Please, we’ve tried every other guesthouse; we just need one room. My wife is in labor,” Joseph begs, growing more desperate with each passing second.
“We have no rooms.”
“What’s going on?”
A middle-aged woman pushing her way around the man.
Turning to her, Joseph pleads, “My wife is in labor. We need a room.”
The woman’s countenance softens.
“Oh dear, where is she?”
Joseph steps back to give her a view of Mary, who is holding the underside of her belly, a pained expression on her face.
“We don’t have a room available, but there’re a couple of stalls in the barn. You can stay there until something comes open.”
Joseph sighs. The barn wasn’t the most ideal lodging, but at least they would be out of the cold.
“I’m still charging you,” the man states.
Joseph doesn’t reply; he’s just glad to have somewhere to go.
With his arm around Mary’s waist, Joseph walks her slowly into the stables. The smell of manure is strong and for a moment, Joseph reconsiders his decision. Then Mary stops. Her eyes are tightly shut and she ceases breathing as her body tightens up. Joseph is afraid for her; yes, he had told Anna she was strong, and he believed it, but all this seemed more than even he could take.
“Well, come on, you don’t want the baby to birth itself, do you?” the woman, the innkeeper’s wife, says, coming up behind them. Carrying some blankets, a candle and a stool, she walks past them into a clean stall and starts setting up for the birth.
When Mary’s pain subsides, Joseph resumes walking and leads her over to where the woman is. Feeling helpless, he can only watch as the woman removes Mary’s veil and unties her belt.
“Out with you, now,” the woman says, still helping Mary undress to her undergarments.
“Should I…?” Joseph begins, but he can’t think of a thing he could do to help.
“I’ve given birth to six children. Your wife is in capable hands. Now out with you,” she tells him, sternly.
Without an argument left, Joseph walks back outside, unsure of what to do. He could be a patient man when required, but he wasn’t sure he could handle this waiting. Seeing Mary in pain was the worst experience of his life, though he couldn’t imagine it was any better for her. If that’s what childbirth was about, he was grateful he wasn’t a woman.
Joseph decides to take care of his donkey while he waits. Guided by the light of a bright star overhead, he finds his way back to the well, where the animal rests. He relocates him to the stable entrance, where a dog lies asleep, and ties him to a post, awaiting permission to take him inside. He unloads the bags and brushes him down. With the task done, Joseph sits down beside the dog, who lifts his head briefly then drops it back down, apparently sensing no danger from him. Appreciative of the company, Joseph strokes his coat, pondering what to do next. His stomach is tied in knots, so eating was not an option. The innkeeper was not a friendly fellow, so striking up a conversation with him was not appealing – besides, Joseph didn’t feel like talking.
A scream emerges from the barn. Joseph jumps to his feet. It was Mary. He is ready to rush in, but hesitates. Was this all part of the process? Or was something wrong? Wouldn’t the woman come get him if something happened to Mary?
There is another scream. Joseph steps into the barn, then back out, disturbing the dog’s sleep. He wants to rush in and help her, rescue her, take the pain from her, but he knows he can’t.
Time and time again over the next couple of hours, Joseph has to quell his instinct to protect Mary. She had become his other half, as Heli had said and to hear her suffering…
Looking for a distraction, he sits back down beside the dog and pets him. As if wanting to comfort him, the creature moves closer and rests his head on Joseph’s lap. He strokes the fur back and starts to pray. The words are barely out of his mouth, though, when he hears another cry. This one is different than the earlier ones: it’s the cry of a babe, a newborn, a new life. Struck by the sound of it, Joseph stands up and makes his way to the stall where he left Mary. There he finds his wife, sitting on the stool. Her hair is disheveled and her legs are uncovered, yet despite it all, she wears the biggest smile he had ever seen, as though the pain and suffering she had just been through was entirely forgotten. She gazes up at him, her smile even broader and that’s when he notices the bundle in her arms.
Her son, he thinks, then corrects himself: their son…the mashiac. Apprehension grips his heart once again. Could he be a father to the savior of mankind?
Mary moves the blanket away from the child’s face as he moves closer to her. Reminding himself what his father-in-law told him, he takes a deep breath and kneels beside Mary. She leans into him so he can take a closer look at the boy. He is small and pink and wrinkled. And in that moment, as Joseph examines him, he opens his mouth and yawns.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” Mary whispers.
Joseph nods, unable to speak. Foolishly, he had imagined the child would be born a man, with full wisdom and knowledge of his destiny. And maybe somewhere in his consciousness, he was aware of it; but for right now, he was simply a child, perfect in shape and form, just as G-d had created him. He would fulfill his calling in time; until then, he would accomplish his and be the boy’s father.
“What will you call him?” the woman asks.
“Jesus,” he replies, gently stroking the child’s head.
The hour is late, but Mary remains awake, watching Jesus sleep in his make-shift crib. The innkeeper’s wife had bundled up several blankets and placed them in the manger, giving him a place to sleep off the hay and away from the animals.
“You should sleep,” Joseph suggests, standing behind her.
“I like watching him. He’s so full of peace,” she replies, taking his hand in hers.
Joseph kneels beside her.
“You’ve had a long day, with the birth and the pain and labor…”
“You know, I’ve forgotten what it felt like already.”
He glances at her incredulously. Mary blushes and smiles innocently. She wouldn’t have thought it possible, but when she held her baby for the first time, she forgot the struggle she went through to birth him. An amazing blessing. Mary squeezes his and leans head on his shoulder. Everything felt right, as if this was how it was meant to be.
“Is that him?”
Mary and Joseph look up at the voice breaking into their moment. Behind them stand three men and a boy. There are no animals with them, though two of them carry a shepherd’s crook.
“Is that him?” the older one of the visitors asks again.
“Who?” Joseph releases Mary’s hand and rises to his feet.
“The Mashiac,” he replies. “We were told we would find him here in the stables, sleeping in a manger.”
Shocked, both Mary and Joseph turn to the boy, who continues to sleep soundly, despite the company.
“Who told you this?” Joseph asks, with confusion.
The man seems reticent to respond, but with a nod from his companions, he says, “We were out in the fields near here, keeping watch over our flock, when a…man, a tall man, a malakh appeared before us. We were terrified, but he greeted us and said, ‘Don’t be afraid. I’ve come to bring you great news. Today a savior was born for you in the city of David. And this is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ Then, as he finished speaking, there was a multitude of malakhs behind him, filling up the fields and the heavens, singing, Glory to G-d in the highest heaven and peace on earth!
“As suddenly as they appeared, they disappeared and we said to each other, ‘We need to go to Bethlehem and see this thing the L-rd has made known to us.’”
The shepherd ends his tale with an expectant look on his face: was this him, their savior?
Joseph glances back at Mary once more, then steps aside to give them access to the boy. Mary sits up, protectively, but understands he did not belong to just her and Joseph: he had been born for all.
The light begins to break through the darkness when the shepherds finally leave. They had beheld the child and praised G-d, promising to share the good news with all. Mary said little throughout their visit, wondering if this was how their lives were going to be. Would their lives have any semblance of normalcy or would it always be one type of visitor or another, venerating the child. And he wouldn’t always be a child: would he know he was born to save his people? Or would he grow into that knowledge?
Only time would tell; right now, Mary was content to tuck the questions and the visits and the prophecies into her heart and treasure them. Life would be different, yes, but she would treasure it.
“You should sleep now,” Joseph admonishes her. He had walked the shepherds out and was now kneeling beside her and the sleeping Jesus.
“What about you? It’s been a long day for your too,” she replies.
“I’ll wait. The innkeeper said some rooms would come available in a few hours. You just get sleep and I’ll keep watch over you and Jesus.”
Mary’s heart fills with love and the only thing she can think to say is, “I love you, Joseph.”
“I love you, Mary.” He says, and kisses her, before standing and going back outside.
Content, Mary beds down beside the babe and shuts her eyes.