(I hope you will forgive this being a fortnight late. Between Christmas projects and unexpected traveling, I couldn’t get it posted. So I present it today, on the Twelfth Day of Christmas. In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 for your perusal.)
My cousin Abijah did arrive two days after Joseph and Mary. He was old, but not frail. He could have lodged in the stable, but he got Uncle Zadok’s smallest upper room to himself. Which I thought extravagant in view of our cramped quarters, but of course I said nothing.
That’s how Mary came to give birth in our stable. One morning, about two weeks after I spoke with her, her pains started. They intensified throughout the day, as often happens with a woman’s first birth. In the afternoon, she lay down on fresh straw, and Mother hung blankets to screen the stable from the house. Aunt Abihail, Uncle Tilon’s wife, attended her, and I assisted because no one else cared to and because I was interested in midwifery. Bethlehem had a midwife, but she came only for difficult births.
Joseph insisted on being present, which was unusual for a father and made my aunt a little nervous, but I think Mary liked it, and he kept out of our way. Mary was calm and serene. Throughout the whole labor, she never screamed, unlike my cousin Elam’s poor wife. In fact, it was the most uneventful birth Aunt Abihail had ever seen except for one thing.
Mary was a virgin. Even Aunt Abihail had to believe it. We never spoke of it after that night, but she knew and I knew, and Mary knew that we knew. Yes, I was shocked. I folded and refolded the swaddling cloths about twenty times as I thought of it.
The baby Son of God entered the world near midnight, crying like any other baby. Then Mary called His name softly: “Jesus.” And He hushed and snuggled in her arms. After a little while I helped Aunt Abihail wash Him, rub Him with salt, and wrap Him in the swaddling cloths—long strips of soft clean linen. Babies like to be wrapped up, snug.
Then I filled the goats’ manger with the cleanest straw we had and covered it with a thick rug. There we laid Jesus after Mary fed Him. None of the family came to see Him. “To let Mary rest,” Mother said, but she’d been quick enough to visit Elam’s little daughter last year. They barely got a moment’s peace the first three days.
When there was nothing more to do, I went to the sleeping mat I shared with my sisters and crawled under the blanket. But I couldn’t sleep.
I had lain there for perhaps half an hour when someone tapped on the front door. I lifted my head, but Father snored on. Until the tapping became pounding.
Father sat up. “What’s amiss?” he shouted.
“Sir, is there an infant in your manger?”
I sat straight up. Who could know we had a newborn baby in our stable? With all the Romans in town for the census, I was frightened until I realized no Roman could speak Aramaic so naturally.
“What’s this foolishness?” Father grumbled as he got up. Mother rose, too, and lit a lamp. Father unbolted the door. “What?”
“We seek a baby in a manger, sir. Is there one in yours?”
“Well, yes.” Bewilderment filled Father’s voice. “How would you know?”
“We were watching our flocks in the field when an angel told us a baby had been born who was our Savior, the Messiah. May we see Him?”
Listening from my sleeping mat, I felt a strange tingle flow from my toes to my hair. This was so bizarre, yet quite appropriate. Of course an angel should announce the birth of the Son of God.
“You’re saying an angel told you the Messiah was born in my stable?” Father demanded.
“Not your stable, precisely. We just came to Bethlehem and this seemed the place we should knock.”
“I see.” Now Father sounded dumbfounded. “Come in.”
He stepped back, and in trooped half a dozen shepherds. Their smell was unmistakable. An unexpected audience for angels, but then, the Messiah in a manger was unexpected, to say the least.
A hand pulled back the blankets between us and the stable. Joseph appeared, saying, “Come and see Him.”
You should have seen the reverent quietness with which those shepherds crept into our stable. More amazing still, the utter awe on their faces when they slipped back out to let another group come in. I don’t know how many there were; more than fifty, men, women, and children. My brothers and sisters and I sat against the wall out of the way. The shepherds spoke little until the last ones had tiptoed back outside.
Then the one who had knocked spoke to Father. “We are honored by the hospitality you show humble shepherds. May the Lord bless you for sharing the Messiah while He lodges under your roof.”
“I still don’t understand how you know that infant is the Messiah,” Father said.
“An angel appeared to us, bringing good tidings of great joy for all people, he said. He told us a Savior was born, our Messiah, the Lord. And we would find Him wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.
“And then, sir, the sky was filled with a host of heavenly beings singing, praising God. Such music you’ve never heard, nor could ever hope to hear. They said, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.’”
I wished with all my heart I could have heard that singing.
“But what does it mean?” Father demanded.
“I don’t know. All I know is we have found it just as the angel said. And I will never cease to praise God for it as long as I live.” The man shook Father’s hand. “You and your household are greatly blessed.” With that, he left.
Father shut the door, shaking his head. “Rachel, am I dreaming?”
“If you are, so am I.” Mother slipped off the head-covering she’d thrown over her hair.
“Come,” I whispered to my siblings. “Come see the Messiah.”
“How do you know He’s the Messiah?” my brother Simon whispered back.
“Can you doubt after what we’ve seen? Come.”
Whether they believed me or not, they joined me in creeping between the blankets that screened the stable. I suppose in some ways Jesus looked just like any other baby. Sweet, red-faced, tiny. But somehow different. Regal, I’ll call it, for I can’t think of anything that suits better.
Mother and Father peered over our shoulders at the Baby clinging to one of Mary’s fingers as she lay beside the manger. I know not whether they truly knew the magnitude of what had occurred in our stable.
But I know that Jesus is the Son of God, our Messiah. And, as Mary said, one day the whole world will know.