Joseph couldn’t believe what he was hearing as he listened to the Government Proclamation being read out in the Nazareth City Square.
A Roman Census was to be held which required him to travel to Bethlehem, the city of his ancestors, and register. Even under normal circumstances this trip would take him at least 5 days to travel the 150 odd kilometres along the flatlands of the Jordan River, through the Judean Desert, over the hills surrounding Jerusalem and on into Bethlehem. But these were not normal circumstances.
It wasn’t necessary for Mary, his wife, to accompany him because he, legally, could sign the register as head of the family. However, he knew Mary would insist on being with him during this time, as it was close to the birth of her special baby.
The male in Joseph could see the difficulties that would lie ahead should they both go to Bethlehem with Mary in her advanced stage of pregnancy. If only Mary would agree to stay at her mother’s while he was away.
Mary was having none of Joseph’s arguments because, as she pointed out, he had a particular role to play in the providing for, and the upbring, of their future son. He had been chosen by God to be their special son’s earthly guardian and carer and, as the birth was imminent, Mary said she wanted to be with Joseph and was prepared to go to Bethlehem with him.
Joseph knew he couldn’t win this argument, so as he set about planning for their journey and he thought about how he and Mary’s paths had first crossed.
After the death of his first wife, Joseph had devoted himself to helping out at the Temple in Jerusalem where his building skills were needed in repairing the aging construction. He enjoyed his repairs and maintenance tasks for the Temple high priest, Zechariah and his wife. It was at the Temple, Joseph first met Mary.
Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, were childless and according to the history books, had promised God that if they were to have a child, they would offer that child up to the Lord’s service in the Temple in Jerusalem.
It was after Joseph’s Temple service that Zechariah suggested to Mary’s parents that she would make a good housekeeper for Joseph. In those days, children’s future partners were decided without serious consultation with the child.
As the thought of having a live-in house keeper was generally frowned upon, an arranged marriage saw the teenage Mary engaged to Joseph. It was, while living back at her own home preparing for her upcoming marriage, Mary received the now well-documented angelic visit and, although still a virgin, her pregnancy commenced.
Following this visit from the angel and her acceptance, Mary sent a note to Joseph saying, ‘Joe, we need to talk’.
Even though he thought the world of Mary, her story was a bit hard for him to understand. He left with a downtrodden heart knowing that he must end the relationship quietly, because, should it become generally known that Mary became pregnant behind his back, the law called for a serious response, which could even include a public stoning.
Fortunately for Mary and their relationship, Joseph got an angelic visit as well. Armed with this new understanding, Joseph hightailed it back to Mary’s place to apologise. Together they worked through the steps they needed to take to formalise their marriage and prepare for the coming of their baby boy, who they had been instructed to call, Emanual. After their marriage, Mary moved into Joseph’s home.
Joseph arranged to borrow an old donkey so Mary at least wouldn’t have to walk to Bethlehem, when they went to fulfill his census duty. He thought of the possibility that she might give birth on the journey, or they might be stranded away from home while she recovered from the birth. So, he put together a tool kit which he fastened behind a somewhat primitive form of saddle on the donkey. This kit, he reasoned, would allow him to pick up some odd jobs that would fund whatever might be needed should at any stage they ran out of money.
He also strapped onto the donkey a supply of food, probably dried bread, some oil and some herbs. Also included were some wineskins filled with water and warm cloaks to protect them during the cold nights. Mary, in the meantime, was also conscious of the bumpy ride she must endure and the possible consequences, but was determined to go with Joseph. She had been sewing some swaddling clothes for the baby and packed these, along with some essentials for herself, just in case they might be needed.
They eventually set off on their 150km journey along the dusty Bethlehem Road, along with many others heading in the same direction for the same purpose. Donkeys are not renowned for their record-breaking ground speed and this old fellow was slower than most. It was a hot, dusty, tiring journey which had to be interrupted for the occasional rest and drink break for them both and the donkey. At night they would have rested with others on the same journey to help protect themselves from any wild animals or even bandits.
Because of their slow progress getting to Bethlehem, Joseph unfortunately found on making enquiries around the town, there was no accommodation available, not even at his relations’ homes.
Joseph’s plea to the innkeeper concerning Mary’s condition gave them two options. The innkeeper said they were welcome to use the stables at the rear of the inn, but there were so many horses and donkeys tethered there that he thought there would hardly be room enough for them as well. He said the only other possibility was one of the caves in the hills nearby, often used by the local shepherds to shelter their flocks from the cold. After consultation with Mary, Joseph chose this latter suggestion
As luck might have it (or was it divine intervention), they found such a cave. It was night now and Joseph settled Mary down on some dry straw and proceeded to unload and tether the donkey. Joseph was concerned, that should Mary give birth while out here, away from available help, he would feel ill equipped to assist in the delivery. As he pointed out to Mary, his brick laying and cabinet making skills were a far cry from him even having a basic knowledge of obstetrics.
They needn’t have worried. The goodness of God came to the rescue. As Mary became aware her birthing time was near, the angels who came to both Mary and Joseph originally, appeared again to them on this occasion. The cave became filled with a soft light and the angels called on the Holy Spirit, who had been responsible for Mary’s miraculous impregnation while still remaining a virgin, to once again intervene.
The same Holy Spirit would ensure Mary suffered no pain at the birth, as this was a most joyous occasion. While her obedience to the word of The Lord was recognised at this time, her pain would come later in the life of her son.
Joseph, kneeling beside the resting Mary, had his rough builder’s hands placed gently beside his wife’s stomach by an angel. In the background a heavenly choir sang in harmony, ‘Gloria in Excelsis Dei’. Joseph looked up as he heard a voice proclaim, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”.
As Joseph looked down once more at his hands, he realised Mary had given birth and he was actually holding the infant Jesus. As he passed this precious new-born baby up to Mary, the little boy’s eyes opened and Joseph was sure he detected a slight smile on its face.
Joseph’s prayer that night was a prayer on behalf of us all, “Thank you Father for sending us Jesus”.
Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I’m Peter Mack and that’s how I feel