In the wedding festivities, Joseph wants everybody to know he and Mary are a blessed couple, but he must be careful not to say too much. Without the town’s acceptance, he would be out of work.
The missing touches that Joseph had in mind for the house would have to wait. People wouldn’t see what needed to be done. But if Mary did not become his wife immediately, the shortness of her pregnancy was sure to be noticed. Tonight was none too soon if the community was to recognize them as a couple blessed by God.
Joseph was already at the door when he heard Samuel’s call for him to join the procession, torches held high, people cheering. He walked alone beneath the canopy held aloft by four poles.
“The bridegroom is coming,” Samuel shouted. In measured cadence, he repeated the words again and again. Each time, the crowd joined the chant.
When the procession stopped at Mary’s house, the door flew open. Mary ran to Joseph’s side and took his hand, walking with him to the hill prepared for their public commitment to obey God’s Law and love each other forever.
Afterward, in the privacy of their home, while the waiting crowd outside believed the two were having their special first time together, Joseph and Mary were finding intimacy in another way. Joseph retold his dream—every detail—every word the angel had said. Mary did the same with her story.
After an hour, Joseph went to the door and made the customary announcement. “Our marriage has been consummated,” he said.
For the next week, Joseph and Mary remained in the seclusion of their home. They talked about God’s blessings and what his plan might be, while the village danced and sang in anticipation of the couple’s arrival at the celebration.
“What if people find out how pregnant you are?” Joseph said. “They will not be kind and understanding.”
“Don’t worry,” Mary said. “This is God’s plan. He will make a way.”
On the evening of the seventh day, Joseph and Mary joined the wedding festivities—dancing and singing far into the night. Wine flowed like the Jordan River during rainy season.
The next morning, while Joseph was adding an iron edge to a wooden plow blade, Samuel arrived.
He looked around the shop. “You seem busy.”
“Yes,” Joseph said, while wondering what was missing in his friend’s tone. “We are blessed.”
“What were you saying last night about Mary being pregnant? Were you speaking by faith or by fact?”
“Did I say she was pregnant? You must be mistaken—probably thoughtless words of imagination—a product of too much wine.”
“I don’t know what you said. Maybe nothing. People have active imaginations. I was too far away, but from what I overheard, some people are anticipating a premature birth.”
“Anything is possible, I guess.”
“Do not play games with me, Joseph. You know what I’m saying. This is serious if these rumors persist. People regard you as a righteous man—that is, until now.”
Joseph set the plow on the ground. “Rumors are like feathers blown by the wind. It’s impossible to catch them all. I swear by God who sits upon his throne, until the day of our wedding, Mary has been a virgin.”
“Maybe you know that, but the council dislikes a village in turmoil. They may call for a hearing to establish the truth and squelch the rumors.”
With each passing month, Joseph saw signs that rumors about Mary were growing more widespread and intense. Whenever he delivered his work, people seemed more distant, as if they believed he had done something wrong. They wore strange smiles and were unusually quiet, no longer open and friendly. Work became scarce. Hardly anyone had need for a carpenter anymore. Obviously, they were using someone else, avoiding him.
At the evening meal, Joseph broke off a piece of bread and dipped it in the sauce. “A storm is building from which there may be no escape. Tomorrow, we must face the council.”
“Then it’s time to make the truth known,” Mary said. “We have your testimony and mine. With Eli on the council, the judges are sure to respect our words. Zechariah’s letter will establish the truth beyond doubt. They will have to accept words from a priest.”
Joseph shook his head. “Eli won’t be allowed to sit as judge, not where his family is concerned. His testimony has no value. They will say he could be biased, and we both know he is. Zechariah’s letter is from a family member. They won’t allow it to be considered.”
“Is there no hope?”
“Not in Nazareth. How can we not be judged guilty? Virgins cannot become pregnant without a man. Everybody knows that. Were it not for the angel who spoke to me in my dream, I would not have believed you—and I wanted to believe.”
“What are we to do?”
“We cannot be here in the morning. Gather no more than what our donkey can carry. I must take my tools. We will not have room for our tent. The house will look like we have gone on a journey and will return soon, but we will not.”
Mary nodded, staring at the floor. “You are right, but I still hate to leave. Eli and Anna will not see their grandson. What will they say when people ask where we are?”
“They will say we have gone to register for the census. After a few weeks, people may wonder why we haven’t returned. They may think we have found friends and built a home elsewhere, or maybe some tragedy has befallen us. Whatever they think will be better than destroying the reputation of our families.”
Mary left first, casually advising her neighbor that she was going to visit her parents. A few minutes later, Joseph left with the donkey bearing its heavy burden. If people noticed his departure, they would think he was working late. He decided against telling his father he was leaving, but turned down the street toward the house of Eli.
At midnight, after long embraces and many tears, Joseph and Mary quietly left the house of Eli and Anna. Two miles down the road, they found a secluded spot where they could tether the donkey and sleep.
“God has a plan,” Mary said. “He will make a way.”
Joseph wasn’t so sure.
Nowhere to Stay
On the journey to escape Nazareth’s social pressures, Joseph wants a new place he can call home. But if he can’t find acceptance somewhere, how will he support his family?
At the sound of Mary screaming, Joseph shook himself from sleep. It was just a dream. Or could it have been more?
On the hill above, dawn’s first light cast long shadows. Were evil men lurking behind the bushes next to the boulders? A man with his pregnant wife and a donkey laden with goods would be easy prey.
He nudged Mary awake, helped her to her feet, and folded her blanket. How soon would the baby come? Her walk reminded him of the strain he felt when carrying a roofing beam. She said she was okay, but what if the baby came today? Travel would be impossible.
“It’s not yet time,” Mary said with a confidence Joseph couldn’t understand. She looked like she could give birth at any moment.
“It has been a short night,” he said, “but we need to move on.”
He nodded toward travelers as they passed in each direction, hoping the garment pulled over his head would conceal his identity. Nazareth already had enough rumors to disgrace their families. He didn’t need to deliver more wood for those fires.
The next night, he spent sleepless hours under the stars, first thanking God for keeping them safe, then worrying about the dangers ahead. What if Mary stepped on a loose rock, turned an ankle, and fell? How would he handle attackers if they came? Silently, he prayed, Make us invisible to anyone who would harm Mary or the child.
Soon after dawn, two families on their way to Jerusalem from Cana welcomed the opportunity to enlarge their group. With small children, they were happy to let Mary slow their pace.
In the evening, they camped around the fire and broke bread together, making it impossible to avoid conversation. What could Joseph say about their journey without lying? “I hate to take us away from our families,” Joseph said, “but I have a wife and baby to provide for now.”
One man nodded, the firelight revealing his smile that said he was fully aware of the challenges of fatherhood. “May God be with you,” he said.
“Nazareth has always been our home.” Joseph spoke with a deliberate hint of regret. “But too many carpenters make us all poor. In the big city, finding work won’t be so hard. Besides, I must register for the census there. I will drive two nails with one stroke of the hammer.”
“You missed a nail,” the man said, laughing. “You didn’t mention the festival. Where will you stay? The streets will be crowded with singing and dancing and the smell of meat and vegetables spread on our tables.”
“Yes, of course.” In his hurry to leave Nazareth, he hadn’t thought about the Jewish feast. “We have family there in the hill country.”
Three days later, when Jerusalem came into view, Joseph turned to Mary. “I fear what might happen if we visit any of our relatives. We cannot control what people will say or what rumor might reach Nazareth. We need to turn south toward Bethlehem.”
“I wish we could see my aunt Elizabeth.” Mary’s tone was submissive but reluctant. “Whatever you think is best.”
With the other hand still gripping the donkey’s bridle, Joseph put his arm around Mary, tightening their walk together. “In six months, the rumors will cool. We will be settled in our house, and my work will be established. Then we can go.”
Mary nodded, but her firm lips showed obvious strain.
“Is something wrong? We should stop and rest.”
“No. If we are to find lodging in Bethlehem, we need to get there before dark. I will be fine.”
“As you wish.” Joseph wanted her to stop and rest. Were it not for the hard chill in the air, another night under the stars would not be a problem. But if Mary’s time to deliver came, they would need shelter—and a midwife.
She was right. They needed to keep moving.
At dusk, they passed the watchman at the entrance to the town. The many tethered animals at the stable—five donkeys, two horses, and a camel—made the sign unnecessary. This was the inn.
At the door, a round, bald man greeted him. “Sorry, we have no room. The festival, you know.”
Mary groaned a subdued sound of pain. Her flushed look betrayed her desperation.
“Please. Is there no room anywhere? My wife is ready to give birth. I will pay double.”
“A week’s wage won’t make room where there is none.” The man pointed at his chest with pride. “Nathan will not expel travelers from their rooms, not even for King Herod.”
“But there must be something.” Joseph looked toward Mary, responding to her groaning. “What about the animals? You could push them out.”
“You would stay in the stable?”
“I know of no other place.” Even then, as Joseph viewed the throng of animals, he wondered if room could be made. “With hay and blankets and a roof above our heads, all will be well.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a denarius.
Chuckling, Nathan held up his hand. “If I took no payment from the animals, should I expect anything from you? No, nothing. The stable is yours for the night.”
Mary groaned, loud and sustained. “Hurry,” she said. “I need help.”
“A midwife.” Joseph glanced down the street, then at Nathan. “Where can I find someone?”
“Be at peace,” my friend. “Make your place in the stable as best you can. You will find an ample supply of hay and wa—”
“But what about the midwife? I need—”
Nathan motioned as if to say Joseph need not worry. “I will call my wife,” he said.
Joseph was spreading the blanket over a thick pile of hay when Nathan arrived with his wife.
Outside the stable, Nathan rested a reassuring hand on Joseph’s shoulder. “My wife has delivered more babies than you can count on four hands—a few of them in the inn”—he chuckled—“but never in a stable.”
In tending his flock outside Bethlehem, Nadav needs unblemished lambs that are suitable for sale as Temple sacrifices. But with all the deception among priests and merchants, how can he get a reasonable price?
On a grassy slope outside Bethlehem, Nadav looked up from his flock to see Asher returning with a single lamb. “You did well. The priest rejected only one? I should go back to selling at the Temple.”
“I don’t think so,” Asher said. “I sacrificed too much. You know their way. The priests look for blemishes so they can reduce their offers.”
Nadav bent down for a closer look at the lamb. “Why reject this one? The strange parting of the wool?”
“In another sale, we both know this one would be accepted,” Asher said. “I acted like I was thankful they didn’t reject them all. I played the game and walked away, but I think I lost more than I gained.”
That night around the campfire, Nadav joined the other shepherds to continue the argument. Which was better, the market or the Temple?
White-bearded Malakai thought the priests and merchants worked together in fixing the prices. Asher described how the priests had cheated him. The youngster, Lemek, said anything would be better than his last experience, when he walked away from the market with only a few coins.
“Your speculation means nothing,” Malakai said. “If you have chosen a road in one direction, you cannot prove what would have happened if you had gone the other way.”
When Nadav made his bed beneath the stars, he was still trying to decide. Maybe the Temple was better, where demand for lambs was high, especially during the feasts.
His flock seemed to share his indecision. As he circled the area, the flock refused to be calmed, stirring as if they sensed a predator nearby.
He looked in all directions.
No cause for alarm.
Something in the wind, perhaps.
As he knelt to curl into the warmth of his blanket, a light in the eastern sky caught his eye because no moon was present to radiate such a light.
The brightness grew larger.
In the midst of the light, a man-like being appeared, dressed in white, who must have had invisible wings, because he hovered beneath the stars like a bird, his arms outstretched as if he were about to address the flock.
Nadav fell face-down to the ground, unwilling to look up, panic making it hard to breathe.
“Fear not.” The angel’s voice shook the air like thunder. “My good news will bring great joy to everyone. Today in the city of David, a savior has been born, the anointed Messiah. You will know you have found him when you see a baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger.”
A host of angels appeared behind him, praising God and singing a heavenly melody. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
As suddenly as the windows of heaven had opened, the sky became dark and silent.
Nadav spun toward the other shepherds.
The youngster at Asher’s side stood and brushed the dirt and grass from his garment.
“Did you see that?” Nadav didn’t wait for an answer. “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this miracle that God has revealed to us.”
Asher nodded, then turned to sit near the warmth of the smoldering fire.
“I meant we should go now.”
“We can go in the morning,” Asher said. “We can’t leave our sheep in the dark of night.”
“No,” Nadav said, “I am going now. You can watch the sheep.”
“And hear you tell some strange story when you come back? Lemek can watch the sheep.”
The decision made, Nadav hurried to Bethlehem, never looking back to see if Asher and Malakai were keeping up.
At the entrance to the town, Nadav looked back to the others, right behind him. “Now where should we go? Walking down the streets and knocking on the doors at this hour will awaken all the people in town.”
“I told you,” Asher said, “we should have waited for morning.”
Malakai motioned for the two to follow him. “One man knows what comes and goes. The innkeeper.”
“You think it will help to beat on his door?” Asher shook his head. “He won’t like being awakened for questions. We aren’t travelers who will pay for a room.”
“Is it not better than waking the whole town?” Malakai said.
As they approached the inn, Nadav pointed toward the stable. “Is this not strange? Why would the light of a lamp shine from there? Not for animals. People must be there. Didn’t the angel say to look for a manger?”
As they entered the stable, a man and woman looked startled as they rose from their sleep.
“I am sorry.” Nadav glanced toward the manger and the bundle lying on the straw, then back to the father. “Shalom. I did not want to disturb you.”
“Yes he did,” Asher said. “Angels appeared to us this night, announcing the child’s birth.”
Nadav described his experience in detail, only occasionally pausing to let Asher and Malakai speak.
Looking amazed, Joseph said, “God’s ways are beyond understanding. How can a child destined to rule Israel be born in a stable and laid on a bed of hay?”
Nadav nodded. “I cannot explain why the angels appeared to us, mere shepherds, and not to Temple priests. Who are we to deserve God’s favor?”
Joseph paused, stroking his beard. “An angel appeared to me in a dream and said to name the child Jesus because he will save the people from their sins. How will a king accomplish that?”
“Surely,” Malakai said, “God is doing a new thing in the earth. We know about raising animals for the Temple, unblemished lambs that are sacrifices for sin. Maybe the new king will declare a new kind of sacrifice, but I cannot imagine what that would be.”
As the shepherds returned to their flocks, Nadav pondered the mystery. “We found everything exactly as the angel said it would be,” he said.
Nadav felt like joining the angelic choir, singing, Glory to God in the highest. “I don’t understand, but we have witnessed a miracle tonight, greater than anything ever told.”
“The Temple priests may not believe our story,” Asher said, “but the people will be amazed.”