We’re down to the count – just two days before Christmas. Many of you are already feeling the stresses and strain of this holiday season. But I hope you can take a few minutes to reflect on what Christmas is really all about – forgetting the presents and the carols, the games and the relatives, and the turkey burning in the oven – and remember that two thousand years ago, a young couple were totally and completely rocked by the first Christmas.
In mere moments, Mary’s spring was wrecked by a visit from an angel. The excitement of her newly announced engagement to Joseph burst like an overfilled balloon. This news was disturbing, unsettling, and shameful. How can a girl who’s never been touched by a man be having a baby? It was nonsense, and yet she trusted.
Within weeks the nausea began. How could she explain this to her beloved? There were consequences – severe consequences for this kind of news. Could she protect him and the child?
By mid summer her stomach had begun to swell and she could no longer hide the fact she was indeed pregnant – the shame of it all. The whole town was talking about it – she’d heard the gossip at the town well. Hoping to save themselves further embarrassment, her parents sent Mary away to stay with an older cousin. But despite everyone’s mistrust, the baby inside of her grew and her heart swelled with love for the tiny life.
As winter set in her back ached, but there was still much work to be done and she was expected to carry her share. Her cousin was busy with her own newborn, and Mary longed for a friend to help her carry this weight. Then one day her beloved came, with news of a trip they’d have to make. She was scared – her time was drawing near, but as his powerful arms lifted her on his donkey she knew he would do everything he could to keep her safe.
On the third day of their journey the pains began. Slight at first, but they grew more intense as she and Joseph made their way along the rocky path toward Jerusalem. The poor donkey beneath her was weary, she could feel it as he plodded along. He wasn’t used to carrying so much weight for so long, and she felt sorry for the poor animal, but the pains were now too great to risk getting down. By the fifth day every muscle in her body felt needled. Every step the little colt took, every breath she drew, every move was agony. She had to tell Joseph – they needed to find shelter – it was time – but they were still so far from their destination.
As darkness fell, a tiny town became visible in the valley below. Joseph carefully picked his way down the hillside, leading the donkey as quickly as he safely could. Beads of sweat were trickling down Mary’s back as she gripped her stomach in pain, trying not to topple off her ride on the steep slope.
The streets were quiet and houses were dark. They could hear muffled sounds of music and laughter coming from a tavern at the end of the tiny street they were one. It wasn’t an ideal place to have a baby, but at least it would be dry and warm – the night air was so crisp and Joseph could see Mary shivering out of the corner of his eye, whether from pain or cold he did not know.
He mechanically looped the rope around a rough hewn post in front of the tavern and made his way inside – he needed a room and would pay any price. It seemed many weary travelers had found their way to the small pub and the owner was slightly overwhelmed by the volume of business that night. Joseph was too late – the last room had been claimed not ten minutes before. Joseph tried to explain the fervency of their situation, but the publican just shrugged and walked away – he had too much work to do if he was going to make the most of this night.
Mary wondered what was taking her beloved so long – this was no time to haggle over price. The door to the pub scraped open and Joseph slipped out. She knew from the look in his eyes that he’d been unsuccessful in securing them lodging, and a wave of fear and nausea flooded her – the back of her throat burning from the bile she willed not to come up. It wouldn’t be much longer before she’d have to get off the little colt and wherever she fell would be where she gave birth – and at this point it was looking like the street. “Dear Lord, help us,” she prayed.
Joseph had only taken a few steps when the door to the pub scraped open again and out stepped the gruff owner. “You there,” he rasped – his eyes fell on the small colt and Mary. “You’ll not find another place to lodge here this night. The town’s overrun with travelers – all headed for Jerusalem.” Joseph turned to go when the man spoke again – a little more softly this time. “It ain’t much, but there’s a small cave just down this road and to the left. It belongs to my brother-in-law. It ain’t much I tell you, but I know it’s dry and he just put in a new load of straw this week. If anyone gives ya trouble, tell ’em Mordecai sent you.” Joseph nodded his thanks and slowly tugged the rope, signaling to the donkey it was time to go now. Mary smiled and thanked the rough man before he shoved the heavy door open and vanished inside the noise of the crowded pub.
Joseph carefully helped Mary off the exhausted colt and onto a fresh pile of straw. The barn smell was overwhelming and Mary’s stomach churned. The time was here and the pain was so great she could no longer contain her cries. Each contraction seemed so much stronger than the last – she was certain she was going to be completely consumed by them. What was she going to do – there was no midwife to direct her – she was just 14 and this was her first time. She wished her mother were there to hold her hand and stroke her head, and tell her everything was going to be just fine. Her mother who’d given birth to 8 children never cried out in pain as Mary did.
Joseph felt lost. He didn’t know what he could do to help his beloved wife. She writhed in pain on the pile of straw – trying not to make too much noise. Every whimper, every gasp sent waves of fear through his body. He could feel his heart racing in his chest – his hands shook as he dumped a scoop of grain in the small trough for the weary donkey who’d so gallantly carried his young bride these past five days. As the minutes passed, Joseph wished he could take Mary’s pain away.
He was finally here – it was all over with. Every muscle in her body ached, but she held the tiny infant to her breast and watched as he suckled. She studied his tiny features. The curve of his nose, the fullness of his cheeks, even the little cleft in his chin. His downy head was covered with a swatch of dark satiny hair. This wee babe in her arms was not just her son, but the very Son of God Most High. He was Jehovah! The promised Messiah. Tears spilled down her cheeks – dripping onto his blanket.
Joseph stared in awe at the pair in front of him. His young bride had done it – nearly all on her own, and his heart swelled with love for her. The small fire he’d built for them cast a golden glow over the scene, and he couldn’t stop staring at the tiny baby Mary so carefully held close to her heart. This little man was the Messiah! How could he ever be the right kind of father Jesus needed – the kind of father he was used to. Would he be able to teach him anything? Would he want to learn from such a common man – a carpenter no less. Joseph’s hands were rough and hard with callouses, but he couldn’t help himself from brushing the tears from Mary’s lovely face. With a smile, she offered him the bundle in her arms. As he pulled the newborn to his face, he kissed Jesus’ tiny head – breathing in the newborn aroma, and he knew he was holding the very Son of God.