Mary had feared so many things about this pregnancy. She had feared when the angel had visited her…. Mary had awakened many months ago with her heart beat madly in her chest, a disturbing dream had gripped her entire body with fear and then someone had called her name in the dark of the night. Mary had been too scared to answer and then her room had been filled with a blinding light. Mary had held her arm up to her eyes in an attempt to block the light. As it had dimmed slightly Mary gasped and realised that someone had been standing in her room. Mary had called out: “Who are you?!”. The response had surprised her: “Mary, my name is Gabriel I have been sent from God with a message for you”. It was then that Mary’s entire body had trembled. Gabriel had continued his greeting to her: “greetings and grace to you, young favoured one. The Lord is with you!”. His words had meant to comfort her but Mary’s concern and confusion had grown as her mind raced to grasp the situation and the words. As if he completely understood her fear and confusion Gabriel had proclaimed: “Do not be afraid dear precious Mary, for you have found great favour with God.”
Mary had sat up straighter and focused her heart upon Gabriel’s words, she had fought hard against the fear gripping her heart. Then Gabriel’s words had granted her a great peace and the moment that Jesus was implanted in her womb she had felt as if peace had been implanted into her heart.
That peace was desperately needed as she had tried to find the words to explain to Joseph something that was unexplainable. Her heart had physically hurt as she watched disbelief and betrayal flash through his eyes. She hadn’t blamed him at all because her story was extremely hard to believe. She had tried to articulate the experience of seeing an angel and the message given. She had tried to explain that the Spirit of God had implanted the precious child within. She had wept for days wondering what his response was going to be. She had known that he could have accused her of adultery and that would mean being stoned, but her prayers had been answered and God had confirmed her story through an angelic visitor to Joseph. They had both wept tears as he had retold her about how close he had came to letting her go.
Mary reflected upon the fact that God had delivered her then and tried to ignite the peace in her heart. But as a strong contraction hit she felt a desperate need to find somewhere safe and fear began to creep into her heart. It was if this whole journey had been shadowed by fear and she had feared so many things.
Mary lifted her weary head, her dusty tear stained cheeks revealed just how painful and difficult the journey had been. She watched through her grit filled eyes as Joseph dragged her and their faithful donkey from place to place, she heard his desperate pleading for a room and wondered if they would ever find a place to rest. Mary cried out to God as another pain hit her abdomen, the birth pains had started as soon as the outskirts of Bethlehem had come into view and were much more frequent and strong now. Mary hadn’t needed to tell Joseph that the time of delivery was imminent because he had sensed it the first moment she had let out a soft moan. Joseph’s kindness, love and concern for her was evident in his pleas with each place they stopped. Joseph had almost exhausted all of his family contacts and there was only a handful of places to try. Mary’s pains continued regardless of the fact that she feared delivering her baby in the street with no shelter. Joseph looked at Mary with utter love and concern as he appologised: “I’m so sorry we only have 1 more place to try”, Mary tried to smile but tears poured down her cheeks instead, she took a deep breath and mumbled “then let’s pray they can help us”. Mary tried to not get angry about the fact they had travelled for days and now there appeared to be no place for her to rest. She tried not to rage at the injustice of it all, how was she suppose to give birth? Was it to be on the back of the donkey? She feared that she really was going to deliver her child in the middle of the street! What if they could find some sort of shelter, but what? Under some tree if they could find one? Under a stall holder’s table? There simply seemed to be nowhere!
Mary had been afraid of many things but the conditions of her birth hadn’t entered her mind until now. The injustice of the Roman rule seemed personified in this moment just because they wanted to greedily grab every tax penny they could Caesar Augustus had issued a decree for a census to be taken of the entire Roman world. This ruling had forced her and Joseph to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, the town of Joseph’s ancestor King David. Mary had feared their journey through the frightening Jordan valley wondering if they would face a lion or a band of robbers, knowing that both would show no mercy or acknowledgement to the fact that Joseph had ties back to King David and that she was bearing the Messiah. Mary had felt such relief when they had made it through the dim forest without too many troubles. Joseph had done an amazing job of finding shelter at just the right moment, so Mary placed her trust in him once again and thanked God for getting them here safely. As they made their way to the last place on Joseph’s list Mary issued another desperate plea to God.
The man who answered the door tried to explain that he simply had no room but as Mary’s moans rung out in his ears a great compassion filled his heart. He quickly ushered them inside and raced to find his wife.
Mary tried to get comfortable in the hay but the smell of the animals around her made her stomach turn. She issued a prayer though because she was so grateful to have finally found somewhere to rest but if she was honest this hadn’t been what she had imagined. Her ears had registered that they were surrounded by animals but it had taken her eyes quite some time to adjust in the dim light to see them all around her. Mary now smiled at the three sheep who had quickly surrounded her, they had simply ignored Joseph’s prodding and she was grateful for their warmth and comfort. “Joseph” Mary cried out “I did not expect to give birth here!” Joseph apologised yet again to Mary and knelt down beside her “I know I’m so sorry”.
“It’s ok” Mary gasped and Joseph reached for her, “do you want me to try and move those sheep away?”. Mary shook her head “no it’s ok I appreciate the warmth and softness of their wool, it’s actually kinda comfy now”. Joseph smiled and stroked the head of the sheep closets to him “This journey has made me think a lot about my ancestor King David, he probably slept in a place like where you’re sitting right now”. Mary smiled and nodded unable to speak as another pain gripped her stomach. When the pain finally eased Mary gasped out for help. Just then the homeowner’s wife came rushing to Mary’s side with comforting words. She was soon issuing orders to her husband and Joseph who acted quickly and obediently to the commands issued.
A little while later the sheer terror of the past few hours melted away as Mary gazed into her newborn son’s eyes. Her body felt heavy from the arduous journey, the hours of pain and her arms shook slightly as she reached out for her son. Mary smiled as she watched Joseph gently hold and coo at Jesus, she desperately wanted to enjoy some quiet and calm but surrounded by animals and strangers she felt on high alert.
Joseph had urged her to get some sleep but the adrenaline was still racing through her veins, her racing heart refused to slow down and her tired eyes simply wouldn’t close. Mary shifted in the blankets and lent back into the warmness of the sheep around her. Her trio of comforters hadn’t left her side despite many attempts by Joseph and the owners to shift them. Eventually Mary had managed to convince Joseph that they were a comfort to her and so their presence still remained. As she laid back the companion to her right lifted her head to gaze at her, Mary reached out and stroked the curious nose “I’m ok” she whispered quietly. The sheep looked around as if checking all was ok, looked back at Mary and sighed. Despite her exhaustion Mary laughed, it was as if these three mild creatures had taken on the role of being her personal body guards.
“For today in Bethlehem a rescuer was born for you. He is the Lord Yahweh, the Messiah. You will recognize him by this miracle sign: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough!” Luke 2:11-12 The Passion Translation
Notes: This story is inspired by the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus. I hadn’t ever really considered what the journey would be like between Nazarene and Bethlehem and I was surprised when I read Los Angeles Times article explaining that the journey was fraught with danger. Joseph and Mary had to contend with a long (90 miles/144 kilometres) difficult journey and possibly content with things like lions, bears, wild boars and bandits.
When Joseph and Mary finally made it there would have been such a sense of relief but then to find no shelter would have been terrifying. Mary would have longed to be around people she was comfortable with and also to have some skilled people on hand such as midwives. Giving birth is a dangerous thing especially back in those days when mortality rates were much higher. For her to have been surrounded by animals is very likely and believable. As James Cooper explains homes in those times were built with at least 2 levels: the ground floor was used by the family during the day but was where the animals slept at night while the family slept on the first level. Sometimes there was even an upper room which was a guest room on the roof.