I still do not know why I went to the door. I had long since ceased responding to the knocks that seemed constant. My wife had convinced me to allow more people to come in than our small inn could possibly hold.
Perhaps I went to the door to simply let some cool night air in since the air inside was stale with the breath of the excuses I had heard the entire evening. “Please let me have a room; my son is sick.” “I know you say you are full, but there is nowhere else to go.”
Then there were those who did not have enough to pay for a room but who convinced me that because of the heavy tax from the Romans – which is why they were here in the first place – we shared the same plight so … I was tired of the excuses and the lies.
Maybe that’s why I answered the door. I was prepared to respond to whoever it was pounding with pent-up rage. But when the light from the candle I was holding fell upon the faces of those at the door, my words of frustration froze in my throat. His eyes held desperation and her face was bent down. Her chin was almost buried in her chest, and I could see even as she slumped forward on the tired donkey that she was in some kind of pain.
I thought I had heard every excuse imaginable that night, but what he said next took the prize. “I know it’s late, but do you possibly have a room? My wife is about to have a baby.”
What was in my mind was chastisement for this guy not having the foresight to see that such a journey was foolish. Sure, the registration was a necessity, but why bring your pregnant wife along? With the words still forming on my lips, I felt a tug on my sleeve.
“Abba, I put some fresh hay in the stall for Gamaliel. Can’t they stay there? The woman seems to be so sad and hurt.” Gamaliel was the prized lamb of my oldest daughter, Abigail.
As I looked back at Abigail, who should have been in bed, I heard the woman say, “My dear, you should be in bed. A little angel like you needs to be sleeping at such an hour.”
I turned back toward the couple and told them they could indeed spend the night in our stable behind the inn. The man said, “Thank you,” and the woman reached down in her pain and patted Abigail on the head, “Thank you, as well. Now, go back to bed dear one.”
Abigail, being the inquisitive child that she was, simply asked, “Why are you so sad?”
The woman attempted a smile and said, “Dear one, I am not sad. I’m going to have a baby tonight and I am tired.”
“Well, my name is Abigail. Abba says my name means ‘source of joy’. What is your name?”
The woman leaned down toward Abigail and whispered, “My name is Mary. It means ‘beloved’. Now, you go to bed little angel.”
Abigail turned and ran to where she slept. She literally had to leap over people who were sleeping in every space available in our inn. I felt almost embarrassed that I did not have a place for this dear couple because I had given in to so many others who had probably told me half-truths or lies.
I took them back to the stable and did what I could. I brought a bucket of water and some strips of cloth. As Abigail said, Gamaliel’s stall was full of fresh hay. The playful lamb did not seem to mind being displaced for a time. There were more animals than usual in the stable since so many of the people filling my inn brought donkeys for carrying their goods and goats for milking.
“I’m sorry folks, but this is the best I can do at this time of night with my inn being so full because of the census.”
Mary looked up at me after her husband gently helped her off the donkey. “You are most kind. She started to lower herself into the hay and grimaced.
I began to choke up and said, “This isn’t right. I gave my room to someone else, but I will kick them out and you can stay there.”
“Oh, no,” she replied, “do not wake them. We are fine here. This must be God’s will for us tonight.”
I did not respond because lately I did not think much about God. Like most people in Bethlehem, I had grown tired of empty promises from ancient Scriptures that seemed to be void of meaning. I no longer observed the feast days and seldom went to the synagogue. What was true to me was the reality of constant Roman taxation. I no longer had any patience with the goings-on of rabbis who kept reading texts that told of a promised coming deliverer.
I wanted to say to this dear woman, “If you think it is God’s will that your child be born in the midst of a bunch of animals, then you must have a different understanding of God than I do.” I did not respond, however; I simply told them I hoped the night held something good for them.
When I returned, Abigail was standing in the doorway. In her hands was the blanket that her mother had woven for her earlier in the year. She always slept with the blanket. Abigail handed me the blanket, pulled me down toward her, and whispered, “Take this to Mary. She and her baby might get cold. Tell her …” and then she laughed softly, “Tell her an angel sent it.”
I told her to get back to bed but I did not go back to the stable right away. It was later in the night, when I realized that sleep was not to be a part of that evening, that I ventured back to where they were.
As I approached, I could hear the sounds of a baby crying softly. I waited just beyond the light that came from the lantern I had given them. I turned and walked toward the light. Mary was leaning against the side of Gamaliel’s stall. The man was hunched over a manger. He turned my way, and then I could see the child wrapped tightly in the bands of cloth.
“I see that the baby is here,” I said, not knowing what else to say in what, at best, was an awkward moment.
“I’m Joseph,” the man responded, “and your kindness this evening means so much to Maryu and me.”
Kindness? I thought to myself, you think my giving you a place in my stable for the birth of your child is a kindness?
In a tired voice, Mary asked me, “Did Abigail ever go back to sleep?”
It was then that I remembered I was holding the blanket. “Yes, but before she went to sleep, she asked me to bring this for you …. and for your baby.”
I leaned down and gave her the message, “She told me to tell you it was a gift from an angel.”
Mary smiled and reached toward the blanket. As she did this, she held my hand. Then she said, “Listen, I do not expect you to believe what I am going to tell you, but I feel I must at least say it.”
As she folded the blanket and placed it over her knees, she looked into my eyes and said words I shall never forget, “Your little angel is not the only angel I have encountered of late.” Then she closed her eyes and paused for a moment. Tears flowed slowly down her face.
In that waiting silence, I did not know what to say to this new mother who somehow thought birthing her baby in a stable was God’s will and who seemed to be obsessed with talk of angels. Then she broke the silence, “I want you to look at him. The child in your manger is the long-awaited Messiah. An angel promised me this. This stable this night holds God’s child. I want you to know that. You have made a place not only for us tonight but for God.”
I had no reason to believe such nonsense until I did what she asked of me. I turned and looked down into the manger. “Pick him up,” she said. I’m not much for picking up babies. My wife always took care of this kind of thing, but somehow this seemed to be not a choice but a necessity.
I picked him up and, well, I don’t know what to say. A lot of things made no sense on this long night of mystery, so what I say now will also seem unreasonable. In his eyes was the light of stars. No, I do not mean the reflection of the bright stars that were shining that night. This was more than that.
In his eyes was something that reached up to me and held me. I have never had a feeling like that. My heart both pounded and ached. I had not had room for this? I had put God out back? I had met the long-awaited one with a greeting of “no”? Why didn’t some angel warn me? What does it mean that God would choose to come this way?
Mary was starting to close her eyes in much-needed sleep. As I put her child back down into the manger, she said to me as she pulled the blanket up over herself, “Tell your little angel I said thank you.”
Behind me I heard something. I turned to see a group of shepherds kneeling just outside the stable. Could this night get any stranger? Apparently, it could for I heard one of them say to Joseph something about angels telling them to come. My God, this night was full of angel talk.
Just before I took my leave, I bent down to Mary and said, “Mary, is it really true? Can it really be?” She looked into my eyes and did not even need to respond. I knew. I knew.
I reached toward her and pushed some of the hay up around her weary body. As I pulled on the blanket to raise it higher up toward her shoulders, I said, “Mary, please keep the blanket as a gift for you and your child. After all, it is a gift form an angel.”
Her lips parted in a slight smile, and she spoke softly but one more sentence to me. I nodded my head in acceptance of her request.
As I walked back to the inn, the first glimpse of dawn was edging its way into the morning. In the doorway stood Abigail, waiting, “Abba, has Mary had her baby?”
I picked her up in my arms and held her close. My hand cradled her head against mine and I whispered, “Yes, Abigail, Mary had her baby. She asked me to tell my little angel that his name is Jesus.”