YOU don’t need to know much about Joseph and Mary’s journey: the laborious daily slog along stony, dusty hill roads in stifling heat; the long, bitterly cold nights huddled by the roadside that pass with tedious slowness.
Joseph gives up counting the days, needing no calendar other than Mary’s changing condition. If they reach Bethlehem before the baby is born, they will be lucky. And they are — although luck, of course, has nothing to do with it.
Night is descending, and Mary’s contractions are beginning as they trudge into the small town. The exhausted travellers find themselves hemmed in on all sides by milling crowds who either do not know where they are going or, if they do, are hopelessly lost.
Every town is a mystery to outsiders, and, on this night, Bethlehem is full to capacity with outsiders. Joseph’s worst fears are confirmed. The influx of those responding to mighty Caesar’s edict are all looking for accommodation — and not finding it. At inn after inn, they receive the same curt response that has since figured in hundreds of dramatic interpretations of this story: “No room! No room!”
Then, beyond expectation, one innkeeper — perhaps on the insistence of his kind-hearted better half — takes pity on the distracted traveller with a wife on the point of childbirth. To be sure, there’s no room in the inn, but if they have nowhere else to go . . . well, then there is, at least, a stable. . .
Yes. We have now arrived at one of the most famous buildings — or, to be precise, outbuildings — in art and literature: the stable. But what can I possibly say of the place?
In your own mind, you will have the perfect picture of exactly what it looked like, courtesy of Botticelli, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Rubens, El Greco, or a thousand others. It might be a rough-hewn cave or a rickety lean-to of wattle and thatch. I suggest, therefore, that just as you have always seen it in your mind’s eye is how you should see it now.
You may keep the lowing oxen, the braying donkey, the golden carpet of scattered straw illuminated by the light of a lantern, hanging from a beam. But add in, if you will, what the painters, out of piety or propriety, have tended to omit: the dirt, the anxiety, the pain, the sweat, and the blood.
Add, too, the midwife who helps with the birth. In stories where she is mentioned, she is named Emea; and I am going to suggest — since I have mentioned her already — that she is that compassionate wife of the innkeeper, taking precious time from her responsibilities as hostess to bring a little food and wine, a calming voice, a reassuring touch, and, most importantly, a bowl of hot water and some old — but clean — cloths with which to wash and wrap the newborn child.
As the midwife bustles back to her usual duties, the little family is left alone. Mary — despite her youth — is a life-force to be reckoned with. The birth has been no harder for her than for many other first-time mothers, but she has brought her child into the world far away from the security of home and family and with only the faithful Joseph and a caring stranger to help.
Now, despite the exhaustion of the journey and her labour, she is — like any new mother — totally absorbed in her baby. Joseph stands on the periphery of her experience, gazing with a mixture of wonderment and confusion at the child being rocked in Mary’s arms.
Every father looks to see some semblance of himself in his child, but not Joseph. There is no similarity to seek. He tries to feel how he imagines he ought to feel, but the more he does so, the more he is aware that this child both is, and yet is not, his son. He has played no part in making him, and yet this vulnerable little bundle is now his responsibility. If it was Mary’s burden to bear this special child, then it is now his to learn to love it as if it were his own.
But how does any father set about loving a son, whether his own or, as here, by adoption? Everyone understands a mother’s love: it is a given; a father’s love is harder to define, and, at this moment, Joseph has no idea how to begin.
JESUS, for so he is named — as preordained — has scarcely been cradled to sleep in the crude, straw-filled manger that has to substitute for Joseph’s lovingly made crib left back in Nazareth, when a group of shepherds, plain and simple folk, come peeping into the scene.
Awkward and hesitant, they talk in hushed astonishment of seeing an Angel of the Lord — I’m sure I
don’t need to name him — accompanied by a heavenly host bidding them to come to witness an event that, by its very ordinariness, is extraordinary.
They are followed, as is the way with shepherds, by a straggling flock of sheep. The youngest shepherd — no older than the boy David when he tended his father Jesse’s sheep on these same hills — carries in his arms a newborn lamb, which he sets down at the foot of the manger. Obviously, for reasons of retrospective symbolism, there has to be a lamb. . .
For Joseph, the arrival of these strangers — unashamedly rough-and-ready men and boys from the fields outside town — is truly puzzling: why would God choose to announce the miraculous birth of his son to a bunch of shepherds rather than, say, the priests and religious officials? The obvious answer, which is the one Joseph sagely settles on, is that you have to start somewhere.
If you want a more sophisticated explanation for the shepherds’ role in this drama, then it could be that they provide a telling link to David, the shepherd-king? Or that they signify that the child whose nativity this is will become, one day, a shepherd of men?
Or, yet again, that they are there to provide a proletarian witness: the common man allowed to view the uncommon wonder that has taken place; just as the three kings — who are, even now, en route to this narrative — might be thought to represent the presence of the great and good, the wise and powerful.
This is an edited extract from Joseph and the Three Gifts: An angel’s story by Brian Sibley, published by DLT at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9).