by Elizabeth A Martina
Zachariah shook the dirt from his sandals and his robes before he entered the gates of the temple. And, then, again, he shook them when he had crossed the large courtyard and mounted the steps to the temple itself. Reaching the Nicanor Gate, he stopped to catch his breath. All the stairs were beginning to wear on him, just a bit. He wiped the sweat from his grey beard then turned to the right towards the Court of Priests. Others had already gathered there. The old man joined them at the back.
It was a special week. Not only was it the semi-annual week assigned to the Abijah division of priests, Zachariah’s own division, it was the week of the Day of Atonement, a High Holy Day. One man, of the almost three hundred priests of the Abijah….one man was to be chosen by lot to enter the Holy Place on this day.
Zachariah joined the growing group awaiting the drawing. The chief priest showed up last of all, dressed resplendently in his robes. He walked up to a large bowl in which was placed the names of each of the men gathered around anxiously hoping for a chance at this honor. Seven men’s names were chosen every half year, one a day for a week, to offer the incense at the Altar of Incense and to say the prayers. The chances of each of those three hundred men having the opportunity, once in a lifetime, were slim.
The men held their breath as the high priest dipped his hand in and pulled out one piece of parchment. He read it and half his mouth twitched, fighting a smile. He looked up and reviewed the crowd until he spotted Zachariah in the back. “Zachariah!” he called, bowing slightly in the older man’s direction. Zachariah bowed in acknowledgement. The others clapped in approval of God’s choice for this day. He followed the high priest to the curtained area where the vestments for him to wear were laid out.
Zachariah robed, saying the reverent prayers that went with the robing. Then, he headed towards the Holy Place. Soon the crowds of worshippers would be standing in the courts, waiting for the incense smoke to be seen. Everything was ready and in place. He closed his eyes and began to intone the preliminary prayers.
The moments went by and he opened his eyes to spread the incense on the coals. A young man dressed in white was standing across the altar from him. He was young and handsome, dressed simply in white. Zachariah had never seen him before and stared at him. No one was allowed in the Holy Place except for the priests. Who was this man? What did he want? Zachariah took a step backwards in fear.
The young man obviously noticed Zachariah’s discomfort. “Do not be afraid, Zachariah” he said, extending his hand in peace. “Your prayer has been heard.” The old man stared wide eyed and said nothing. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
The priest looked at the young man as if he was crazy. His dear wife, Elizabeth, who he had loved for thirty years, was barren. “How can I be sure of this?” he smirked. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel’s visage became stern, almost incensed. And he spoke to him. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Then he was gone.
Zachariah, stunned, felt weak and unsure of himself. He knew what he had to do and lit the incense, finishing his apportioned work. It had taken twice as long as normal. He had to leave the Holy Place. Slowly, he made his way, holding on to the walls until he got to where the throng of worshippers gathered. They were muttering loudly about the time delay. When the old man appeared, certain of the other priests gathered around him.
“What took so long, Zachariah?” they asked. A younger priest looked down at the man, aware that something had happened. The old man looked dazed and could not answer questions. Several others gathered around him, trying to get him to explain but he just stood there.
“Take him home. Take him to Elizabeth!” the men said to one another. “Guard! Take this man to his room down the hill!” Zachariah needed the guard to keep him steady. People could see that he looked shocked. But he said not a word, no matter what people asked.
It was still the middle of the day. Zachariah knew he could not return for the sunset service. Someone else would have to complete it. Although there were two more days of service that he was assigned, he understood that his chance of a lifetime was finished. He had received more than a chance in a lifetime. He heard the words of the Lord for the first time in hundreds of years. He had to go home to Elizabeth and tell her what he had seen. Rolling up his small number of possessions, the old man walked out of the small rental room and began his 5 km walk to Ein Kerem.
Elizabeth was sitting on the patio of their country home, weaving. They were not rich and had only one servant to help with the household. Household work was not a chore to this woman, who had seen almost half a century of life. She did all with great joy, treating her husband as a special gift from God and her neighbors as her offspring. The only sadness in her life was her lack of children. As much as she had prayed, God saw fit to not give her this one gift. As much pain as it gave her, her thought was always “It is God’s will”.
The sun was low in the sky as Elizabeth was winding up her work for the day. In the distance, she could see a person slowly walking along the road that went near their house. She sat and observed him, noticing the similarity in stride between this man and Zachariah. A little slower, perhaps. But it could not be her husband. He had two days left before returning to her. She watched as the solitary man continued his walk. He was too familiar. Perhaps the long shadows were playing tricks with her vision. The traveler turned up their side road. Elizabeth stood, squinting. His clothes were clearer now. She remembered weaving his robe with her signature design on the hem. It was, indeed, Zachariah!
Elizabeth, frightened at seeing her husband return too early, ran down the pathway to him, calling his name. She threw her arms around him and welcomed him home, asking questions while still clinging to him. He did not answer.
“My love! Why do you not answer my questions?” she asked, pulling away and looking into his eyes. The sadness in his eyes and the droop of his lips told her something had happened. Something that a two-hour walk had not shaken.
Flustered, Elizabeth took her husband’s hand, kissed it and led him gently to the house. He sat in silence as she prepared dinner and stood at his feet as he ate, watching his every move. When he was finished, the poor woman lit an oil lamp and sat on the floor facing him. She took his hand and looked up at him.
“I know that the Lord has spoken to you. I can see it in your face. Can you tell me what He said?”
Zachariah reached for a writing tablet he often used for recording prayers before committing them to memory. He wrote, “I saw an angel. He said you will have a child and this son will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.”
Elizabeth stared at the note and at her husband’s eyes. “Truly?” He nodded. She sat, absorbing the words. Her eyes glittered and her face almost glowed like that of a girl. “The Lord has finally turned his eyes towards us and has promised to bless us!” Zachariah’s mouth almost smiled at his wife’s joy.
Before winter solstice, Elizabeth assured her husband that she was, indeed, with child.
Mary was Elizabeth’s cousin. She had been sent to the temple, as a small child, to be educated, as few young girls were. She was now back home in Nazareth, where her relatives, because her parents were dead, had found an appropriate young man for her to marry.
The nuptials were scheduled for four months hence. Mary had no qualms. Joseph was a very good man. He was a talented carpenter and could make any furniture she could want. He had a steady business, so they would not go hungry. What she admired most about Joseph was his intense prayer life and his devotion to the Lord. Mary was in her room praying for Joseph to love her and stay as devout as she perceived him to be.
It was a beautiful spring day. The acacia tree in the yard that her mother, Anne, had tended, was blooming its yellow flowers. The sun was shining through her window opening. It seemed almost too bright. Mary stopped her prayers to look at the bright light streaming in.
As she stared at the light beam, it began to take form. Suddenly, it seemed to her there was a young man dressed in brilliant white standing there.
“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you,” the vision spoke.
Mary was troubled. Did visions speak? And why would this young man call her highly favored? Who greets in such a manner?
But he said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Mary determined that the vision was an angel. What else could this be? She relaxed, knowing she was dealing with a messenger of God.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” She could not make sense of what he was saying.
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
The angel faded into the stream of light. In the silence that followed, Mary sat and pondered the first words of the young man for hours.
With some time in contemplation, she remembered the angel’s news about Elizabeth. How could it be that Elizabeth was expecting? She had been barren all Mary’s life! Somehow, this news and the angel’s announcement were related. But how? Mary decided she needed to visit her cousin and ask questions. All she had to do is tell Joseph that she needed to go up to Jerusalem for a few months.
It took several days of planning. Telling her guardians that she wanted to go to see Jerusalem at Passover once more was not difficult. Mary found a group of pilgrims who were going up to Jerusalem on pilgrimage for the upcoming holy days of Passover. It was not that difficult. She would not go alone. Everyone went to Jerusalem for Passover at least once. Mary wrapped clean linens in a blanket roll and a bottle for water. That was all she would need for the trip. Elizabeth could supply the rest when she got there.
It took four days, since almost everyone went around Samaria, adding a day to the walk from Nazareth. The journey was pleasant. The days were moderate and the evenings cool. Her friends kept her safe from marauders and she helped the women cook. It was a pleasant time to visit with old friends. It seemed like no time at all before they could see the walled city in the distance.
As they skirted Jerusalem, Mary glanced at the sun, glad to see there were several more hours before sundown. She happily parted from her friends with a wave and turned onto the road leading up to Ein Kerem.
An hour later, Elizabeth, always on the front patio in the afternoons to get the light, saw the small figure walking up the hill. As she stood, the figure waved and Elizabeth knew, instantly, who was walking up to the house. Elizabeth felt the baby leap in her womb and immediately headed down the hill towards the distant visitor, arms outstretched in greeting. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” The two hugged and the older woman held Mary at arms-length, examining her closely. “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Mary’s bright eyes shone. Elizabeth knew! After four days of walking and praying, Mary had composed several poems. She needed to share one now.
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Elizabeth grabbed Mary’s arm and drew her towards the house. She whispered the news about her husband and looked up. Zachariah was standing in the door and had heard Mary’s words. He looked into her eyes. He had known an intimate moment with God, too.
Over the course of the next three months, Mary and Elizabeth had many conversations. Mary explained to someone, for the first time, that mysterious young man who brought her such strange tidings. And Elizabeth, with Zachariah writing notes to supplement, gave Mary the entire story about Gabriel and his message.
Mary took on more of the house management as Elizabeth became less capable. When the day came when Elizabeth went into labor, Mary got the midwife and stood in preparation for any needs. After a surprisingly short labor, the child, a boy, was born. Elizabeth declared him beautiful. Mary declared him a big baby.
On the day of his circumcision, the mohel came to do the service. The house contained friends and neighbors. The mohel held the child and uttered, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast given us the command concerning circumcision.”
Elizabeth spoke for her husband, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to make our sons enter the covenant of Abraham our father.”
All present then responded: “Even as this child has entered into the covenant, so may he enter into the Torah, the nuptial canopy, and into good deeds.”
The mohel then looked up and asked “What is to be the child’s name?”
“His name is John,” the proud mother declared, looking down at the swaddled baby.
“No, no, no,” several guests objected. “That name is not in your family. You should have him named after his father.” Some arguing proceeded, with various names suggested.
Elizabeth turned to her husband. He grabbed his writing tablet and stylus, writing, “His name is John.” He handed it up for others to read.
“Are you sure?” one man asked Zachariah.
Without thinking, the new father said, “Yes!” Elizabeth’s head jerked up at the sound of her husband’s voice. Everyone knew Zachariah had been mute for ten months. They were all surprised at his voice. Surely, they agreed, this is the work of God.
It was time for Mary to return home. She had only one month before her nuptials. And she had yet to explain things to Joseph. It had all been so new when she left. There had been no time. She had not known how to explain the angel and the words. Three months gave her both perspective, and proof. She decided to visit him the morning after she returned home.
After a hurried breakfast, Mary walked over to Joseph’s workshop. He was always there early. It was mid-June and warm by the second hour of the morning. Mary’s veil was shimmering in the light. She looked lovely.
“Mary! You are home!” he greeted her happily. He dropped his chisel on the worktable, wiped his hands on his apron and came over to greet her. He touched her shoulders and kissed her cheek lightly. “I heard you had returned!” He gazed into her eyes. “How was your trip? Your relatives?”
Mary tried to make light of his questions. She had come for a specific conversation. She answered them quickly. Joseph noticed the short answers and backed away to look at her seriously. His betrothed not only looked lovely. She positively glowed. “The trip seems to have done you a world of good,” he commented. “Please, sit here and tell me all about it.” He indicated a stool he had built recently.
Feeling awkward, Mary sat. He stood before her, holding her hand, patiently waiting for her to describe everything. First, she spoke of her cousin’s news, the experience of Zechariah and his mute state. Then she took a deep breath. Mary withdrew her hand, hiding it in the folds of her mantle. She looked up at her betrothed, biting her lower lid. “I am sure you will have difficulty believing what I have to say next. But it is true. Every word of it.”
“I have never known you to be a liar, Mary.” He pulled up another stool to bring him down to her level. “Tell me what it is and we can share this together.”
“Remember when I told you I had to go to see Elizabeth? Her expecting a child was not the only reason I wished to go. I got another message at the same time.” She hesitated and looked into his eyes, expecting him to be able to read her thoughts so that she would not have to express them. He just gazed at her in anticipation.
When he did not respond further, Mary continued. “The angel who came to Zechariah, came to me also. It is the angel who told me Elizabeth was expecting. He also told me that I was to become a mother. The child is to be great and will be called the Son of the Most High and I am to name him Jesus.”
Joseph smiled benignly. “And when will this happen? We will soon be married.”
“It has already happened. I am in my third month,” she whispered the words that she had never uttered to anyone other than Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Joseph stood up so quickly that he knocked over the stool. “Mary, do you know what you are saying? You are pregnant?” She nodded. “Who is the father?” he asked, his face reddening.
“The angel said the child will be the son of the Most High,” she said, shrinking a little as she watched Joseph’s face.
“Mary, what happened with that angel? Did he touch you?”
“What man touched you? I will bring him to the synagogue and accuse him, myself!” Joseph’s hands clenched into fists at the thought of his betrothed being raped.
“No man touched me, Joseph. The angel told me what would happen. I agreed and it….it happened.” She shrugged her shoulders, not being able to come up with adequate vocabulary to explain.
Joseph covered his face with his large hands. Never had he ever expected that Mary would be one to give herself to a man and then come up with this ridiculous story to cover for her actions. “Mary…. please. I need to think. Go back home. I can not analyze this right now. I—I will talk to you tomorrow. Just, leave. Now.”
Mary felt like he had slapped her. She watched the man she loved turn away from her, his hands still over his face. He said no more. Hot tears of confusion rolled down Mary’s face. She slowly rose from the stool and left the building, her head turned towards Joseph to see if he would change his mind.
Walking away from the small village, Mary climbed the hills for several hours. She needed to sort out her feelings and talk with God. Somehow, this was not the reaction she expected. She thought he would believe her and accept it, just as Elizabeth and Zechariah did. After much prayer and soul-searching, Mary came to understand that she did nothing wrong. Joseph simply didn’t understand. She would wait for him to realize what happened.
Joseph could not work. He could not eat. He was too anxious. His breathing was ragged and his hands unsteady. He sat and glared at his workroom. For hours, nothing made sense as he tried to separate fact from fears. If Mary was raped, she would have told him. But, no. She had this silly story. He wished, now, that he had taken her to his bed. As a betrothed couple, that was acceptable in the Jewish religion. Then, he would know who was the father. The only possible answer was that Mary had willingly gone to another man, breaking the betrothal vows. And she would not admit to it. He certainly could not publicly accuse her of adultery. He loved her. But he couldn’t live with her. Not after this news!
Darkness hit the house before, on lighting one candle, Joseph had concluded that he had only one recourse. He would divorce her quietly, citing personal differences. Then she would be free to marry this other man, whoever he was. His dreams of a life with Mary were shattered. With that, he crawled onto the pallet in the corner of his workshop and went into a restless, dream-filled sleep.
Towards morning, he heard someone calling his name. “Joseph! Joseph, son of David!” Joseph opened his eyes, in his sleep, and saw a young man in white standing only a few feet from him. “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” the youth said. “Because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. This is to fulfill what God told Isaiah, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.” The youth did not stay beyond these words.
Such a startling statement woke up Joseph immediately, heart beating wildly. It was daybreak, He sat up and swung his long legs over the side of the pallet and placed his bare feet on the dirt floor. He rubbed his face and hair, trying to gain control of his senses. When his heart stopped feeling like it was going to burst through his robe, he got up and went to the wash bowl. Splashing water on his face and around his neck, he felt refreshed enough to sit and review that dream, realistically.
Angels. Many references to angels! He could see Mary trying to hide her indiscretion, but he had no reason to believe that the old couple would invent a story about an angel and Zachariah’s mute state for months. For himself, Joseph was sure that he had heard the angel’s words. He stared at his morning bread as he broke and slowly chewed it. Perhaps. Just perhaps. Mary was telling the truth.
By mid-morning, Joseph concluded that the angel who came to him was real. Just like Zachariah’s angel. And, by extension, Mary’s angel. If it was all true, then, he did not need to do anything but take his betrothed to his heart and make her his own, in law, as well as in love. He changed out of his work robe and put on his clothes saved carefully for Sabbaths. He took a deep breath and started on his way to Mary’s.
Mary was outside the door, washing wool in preparation for spinning into yarn. She had calmed her fears of the day before and trusted in the Lord that all would be well. She looked up and saw him dressed in his best robe. What persuaded him to put those clothes on today? Thank you, dear Lord, she whispered. Something good is about to happen.
She wiped her hands on her apron and walked to the road to greet him. Joseph smiled down at her as he arrived. He touched her cheek and sighed with happiness.
“I want to apologize for my reaction yesterday,” he said. “I did not trust your words.” Mary did not interrupt him. She saw he needed to speak. “But, I had my own angel come to me in the night. He told me to trust. That it is all in God’s hands and it is the culmination of Isaiah’s prophecy.” He took her hands. “I now understand. And I hope you can forgive me.”
“Oh, Joseph!” Mary put her head on his chest. “Of course, I can. I want you to be part of my life until we die. There is no one else I could trust to raise this child with me.” She pulled away and looked up at him, again. “No one!”
The nuptials were celebrated a month later. Mary moved into the little house that Joseph had added on to the back of his workshop. They prepared for the baby, whom everyone assumed was Joseph’s. At this point, the new couple was not going to explain the miraculous truth.
October was warm and dry. Mary was blooming in her little home. Joseph was taking on more work than ever. They were happy and looking forward to December and the birth of their son.
It was the Sabbath. Everyone dutifully went to the synagogue. Mary sat with the women and Joseph sat in front, with the men. After all the readings, the rabbi stood to comment.
“I have been visited by the representative of Quirinius, governor of Syria. I have been told that there will be a census taken of all living in our land. The proclamation declares that every man must go to the place of his birth. We have, among us, friends and neighbors who are not native to this village. You are ordered to go to your own town for this count.”
“When will this happen, rabbi?” asked one older man.
“Just after the winter solstice,” the rabbi replied. The men began talking amongst themselves.
Several days later, the rabbi walked into Joseph’s workshop. “You are from Bethlehem, if memory serves me. And your wife, if my wife is correct, is due to have your child around the time of the registration. Can we help you?”
“Rabbi, you are good to ask. I thank you for your concern. Mary and I have discussed this. We have decided to go together. She does not want to be apart from me when the child is born.”
“But you can not travel four days home with a newborn child! And you cannot expect Mary to walk that far.”
“Rabbi, I will be selling what we do not need to buy a mule. Mary will ride to Bethlehem. I will carry my tools with me and set up shop in Bethlehem for a few months until the child is old enough to travel.” He touched the arm of the old man. “Do not fear. We have planned this and we will be fine. We will trust in God.”
The rabbi looked at him in astonishment. “Few men would say those plans. I am impressed, yet, surprised. What will you do with the workshop?”
Joseph winked at the old man. “I will let my cousin stay here for a few months. His apprenticeship is up but his master has not enough business for two carpenters. So, my cousin will stay with my business until our return.”
“Then you are all set, my son.” The rabbi nodded. “I shall ask God for blessings on you and your wife. And blessings to find a good strong mule for the trip.” He left Joseph with a blessing and a smile.
December was the rainy season, if 3.5” of rain a month can be considered rainy. Joseph planned on getting on the road seven days before the census was to begin. This way, if Mary had any difficulty, they would not, hopefully, be late arriving. As it turned out, the rain held them up as they crossed water logged wadis and Mary was not comfortable riding for too long. So, they took their time and arrived in Bethlehem two evenings after the winter solstice.
Joseph looked around, loosely leading the mule carrying his beloved wife. Bethlehem was small. It had very few inns. It was obvious that those were filled beyond capacity. He knocked on various doors, trying to remember who lived in the houses. No one recognized him. He had not been there in twenty years. People forget. They go on. He found no help. Mary was exhausted. She needed to get off and rest. But she said not a thing.
Finally, he stopped by an inn on the outskirts of the village. “I will be right back,” he assured Mary who smiled wearily. Walking in, he recognized the owner. The man had been old when Joseph was a boy. And now, Joseph was almost a father! The younger man smiled. He walked up to him. “Nathan ben Jamin! It is good to see you, again!” The old man turned to look at the person with the voice.
“Jacob? Jacob ben Matthan?” His old eyes squinted to get a better view.
“No, Nathan. I am Jacob’s son, Joseph.” Joseph stepped closer so that the old man could see better.
“Ah, no. Joseph left Bethlehem twenty years ago.”
“No, Nathan! I AM Joseph!”
“Ah!” the old man reached out. “Yes, yes. I remember little Joseph. And you are he?” He got very close to the much taller Joseph and looked up and down at him. “You look very much like Jacob, God bless his soul. You here for the census?”
“I am looking for a place to stay for the duration.”
“You are out of luck. Everything has been filled for days. You should have come earlier.” Nathan shook his head sadly.
Joseph grabbed the little man by the shoulders. “You do not understand. I have a very pregnant wife out there, waiting for some rest. The baby will come any day now. She is exhausted. You have to help me.”
Nathan saw the fear in Joseph’s eyes. He glanced around at the men sitting at tables drinking wine. No one was paying attention to him. And his son who was serving could handle the crowd. He looked up at Joseph and crooked a finger. “Follow me.”
He took Joseph out the back door and up an incline to a cave. Inside the cave were two cows and a donkey, all settled in their beds of hay for the night.
“This is all I have, Joseph ben Jacob. It is an insult to even offer it to you but it is warm and the hay is sweet.” Joseph pulled his coin bag out and started to open it when Nathan put his hand on Joseph’s. “Please. If I charged you for an insult like this, I should be sent to Rome!” He laughed out a bark. “You get your wife and settle in and I will get my wife to bring you out some stew. She makes a wonderful lamb stew.” He patted Joseph’s arm, turned around and left.
Joseph quickly walked around to the front of the inn, and saw Mary bent over. He rushed to her side. “My dear, we have a place.” Mary smiled wearily. “Here, let me help you stay steady.” He put his hand against her back to steady her. Then he clicked and slapped the donkey’s rump, slowly leading the little family up the path to the cave that Nathan used for his animals.
He helped Mary off the donkey and placed some blankets for her to sit on. He led the little overworked donkey to the manger to feed on the hay. The place was very clean. No hay strewn around. A brazier for cold nights sat inside the gate, should they need it.
He finished settling Mary on a bed he had made on the hay. That is when he saw her grimace. “Is it time, Mary?” He knelt before her, looking at her intently.
She grimaced again and nodded. “I believe so, Joseph. Can you ask the innkeeper’s wife where there is a midwife?”
“I told him you were soon due. I am sure that the wife will know of one.”
“I will know of one what?” came a voice from the entry. The wife of Nathan, the innkeeper, was at the gate. She was carrying a bowl covered with a cloth. “I brought you some food so you can relax. And I have a boy bringing you some wood chips and hot coals.”
Rachel opened the gate and waltzed in, bringing the bowl right up to the bed. She placed it on a block of wood and turned to speak to Mary. She watched Mary’s closed eyes and her uneven breathing. Wiping her hands on her apron, the older lady turned to Joseph. “I will go get the midwife. Do not feed her that stew. Eat it yourself. I will send the boy back with some water.” She left.
Very late that night, Mary got to hold her son. She praised the Lord for the ease with which the birth occurred. She blessed her husband, Joseph, for all he did to get her comfortable in time. She thanked the Lord for this child. And she thanked Nathan for giving them the cave, with the feeding manger, which Joseph reused as a crib for the baby.
Later the next day, the cave had visitors. There were five shepherds from the hills. They insisted on seeing the new baby and had a strange tale to tell. The men were hesitant.
“We saw an angel last night. Truly,” began the one who appeared to be in charge. “The light around the angel was so bright, we were afraid something was about to happen!” The others stood silent. “The angel spoke! He said: ‘I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”
Another stepped forward. “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’ And then they were gone.” He sighed. “Their voices were beautiful!”
The first one then added, “So, we all decided that we had to find this child which the Lord had told us about!” He then motioned to a boy of not more than ten.
The boy stepped forward with a lamb of less than one year. “You will need food for a growing boy. We don’t have much but we share what we have.” Mary was brought to tears by the generosity of these poor people.
As they left, the shepherds bowed to the child, amazing Joseph. Over the next few days, they were visited by dozens of strangers, all knowing the shepherds’ story. They brought gifts of some sort, from a log of an acacia tree to baked bread. They all wanted to see the baby.
Within days, Mary was back on her feet. Joseph was able to meet with the census takers and add a second name to his family list. Although he knew the child was not, strictly speaking, his, Joseph had vowed to take the position of father and raise the baby as his own.
Planning for the child’s circumcision, Joseph thought to go to Zachariah’s to find a mohel to perform the rite. It was only a two-hour walk. The old priest welcomed the younger man in his home at Ein Karam.
“I shall be happy to perform the service. And Elizabeth will be glad to be able to visit your wife, her cousin. She will have to bring John, of course.”
“Certainly, sir. We will be very pleased if you can come. Mary has many questions about mother-hood that Elizabeth can probably answer.”
Zechariah laughed and agreed.
On the sixth day after the child’s birth, the multitudes began to leave Bethlehem. Joseph found a small one room house he could afford to rent. They moved in immediately and Joseph began to furnish it with his talents. Mary did what she could to make it homey. They had brought her pot and pan, her dishes and her sewing materials. They were quickly organized.
The sound of Elizabeth calling from outside the little home brought Mary to her feet. She laid the sleeping baby in his new crib and rushed out, arms wide open. There was Elizabeth, holding the chunky little John. She looked younger and happier than she had in the past ten years. Mary took the wide-eyed child out of Elizabeth’s arms and cooed gently. His serious face made her laugh. Bringing them in to the house, Elizabeth went right to the crib and knelt before the child. She looked up at the new mother with tears.
“You have a long road ahead of you, my dear cousin. But the Lord will protect you all.” She stood and took back little John who was reaching for his mother.
“Joseph is so good and patient. With him, all long roads are easy,” Mary responded, looking down at the true subject of their discussion. “No child before has ever had such a life as he will have.”
Zachariah and Joseph came in from the sunlight and the old priest opened his bag of tools to perform the circumcision. Anna and Nathan came to witness, bringing a small blanket Anna had made years ago for an expected child. The baby hardly reacted to the sharp knife and Zachariah was very pleased with his handy-work.
Joseph was brought to tears, himself, when Nathan offered lunch to all in his inn. Now that the crowds were subsided, he wished to express his joy in the words the shepherds had uttered.
The child grew and was very aware early. By the time he was forty days old, it was time for the purification rites for the mother. The little family traveled the two hours to the temple in Jerusalem to present the child to the Lord, as spelled out in the Law. Mary could only go as far as the court of the women, divided from the rest of the temple by the Nicanor gate. Here the rite would be conducted. They bought two little turtle doves, the Law’s proscription for buying the first-born back. At the end of the rite, two elderly people were standing at the foot of the stairs, watching them. One was Anna, a widow, who spent her days at the temple. The other was Simeon, a man who trusted that he would see the Messiah before he died.
Simeon walked up to the little family and took the child in his arms and looked up to heaven, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then, Simeon blessed them and said to Mary: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Mary took these words to heart.
Anna, an old woman of eighty-four, came up behind Simeon and she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. She knew what she had seen and stopped people to tell them.
Amazed, but not shocked at what they had heard, Joseph and Mary hurried home to the little house in Bethlehem for some peace and quiet.
Joseph planned on staying in Bethlehem for three months. He had brought as many woodworking tools as he could possibly get the gentle donkey to carry. He set up an awning in front of the little house and put out all his tools for people to see. He built tables and chairs for people to see his workmanship. In the mornings, he would go out into the desert to find pieces of wood he could work with. Mary tended to the baby and cooked. All in all, they had a calm, even if not financially secure, life.
Several weeks after they experienced Anna and Simeon’s prophecies, they were in for another, larger surprise.
It was getting dark. Mary had lit the two candles on either end of the house. She was feeding the baby before she and Joseph sat down to a meal. Joseph was washing his hands in the wash bowl.
Suddenly there was a commotion outside. Camels bleating, dogs barking, men shouting. Joseph wiped his hands on his tunic and went out to inspect. He could not believe his eyes. In the narrow road were half a dozen camels, several camel tenders and three men dressed in a way not known in Judea. He watched in stunned silence as the oddly dressed men in their silks and turbans disembarked and barked orders to the others. One of them looked up and saw Joseph watching.
“My dear sir,” the man addressed him. “Are you the servant of the new-born king? We have seen his star and have come looking for him.” Joseph was rattled by the explanation. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“Where is he?” the man asked.
“The baby is inside but he is….” The man brushed by him, followed by two more dressed as strangely. They stepped inside and knelt in front of Mary who had just finished feeding the sleepy baby. The three men bowed so that their heads touched the dirt floor. Out of the folds of their voluminous robes, they each brought out one bronze box and put them at Mary’s feet.
Joseph had stood by the door and watched the three bow. He then stepped to his wife’s side and looked at these men staring at his stepson in adoration. “Did the shepherds tell you the story?” he asked.
“No,” responded the first man, who introduced himself as Melchior, king of Arabia. “We have seen the star of the newborn king of the Jews for over a year. We followed it to Jerusalem where we lost track of it.”
“We found the palace of your king, Herod,” continued the swarthy one, who said his name was Balthazar. “And we went in to ask where prophecies say the child will be born.”
“Herod’s chief priests told him that their holy books say the child is to be born in Bethlehem,” added Casper, the youngest. “We thanked him for finding the information and we left.”
“But,” reminded Melchior. “Not before Herod made us promise to return to him and give him all the news, so that he, too, can come and worship the new king.”
Joseph looked down at Mary with a frown. Herod was not known for worshipping anyone except himself. He had already killed several of his own household. He was not someone to be allowed to see the child. Joseph shivered involuntarily.
The three kings, for so it turned out they were, showed the gifts they had brought. Gold was given, for a king should be rich. Frankincense was given, for incense fitting a high priest. Myrrh was given for medicine.
The wise men brought in sumptuous foods to share with the parents of the king and then they went to Nathan’s inn to rest.
After two days of visiting and honoring the little king, the wise men gave their good-byes. Melchior said, “We will return to Jerusalem to tell Herod that we have found the king. Then he can come to worship also.”
Casper added, “We will wait the years it will take until this child makes himself known to the world. It will be glorious.”
That night, they each had the same dream. An angel warned them to avoid Herod at all costs. In the morning, all agreed to obey the dream’s direction. They returned to the East via another route.
Joseph happily spent another week making and selling bowls, cups and a few pieces of furniture. But in the back of his mind, he reviewed the words the wise men told them about Herod’s intents. He was concerned.
One night, Joseph dreamed again of the angel who told him to accept Mary. This time, he was warned. “Get up,” the angel said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Joseph got up, and woke up Mary quietly. They silently packed. Within an hour they had the donkey loaded. They took the child during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
The audience that Herod had with the wise men haunted him. He ranted and raved, storming through the palace halls. The priests heard rumors of this and worried that Herod had lost his mind.
Two weeks after the wise men left Herod’s presence, he knew he had been had. He was sure the kings had denied him the opportunity to see this child. Not that he would worship such a one. He wanted to get rid of it. He was the king of the Jews! Not some one-year-old baby! He ordered the guards to go to Bethlehem and kill any male child under the age of two, just to be on the safe side. And, he ordered, not just in the village proper, better to be safe by expanding to about 7 km in all directions from Bethlehem, which meant the southern section of Jerusalem outside the walls.
Zechariah heard the gossip of Herod’s intention. John was not safe, either. Some of the other priests spoke about the strange occurrence of his son’s birth. They might twist the story and leak it to Herod. And who knows what Herod would then have in mind. Zachariah planned to save his own child. Zechariah feared for the lives of all little boys.
“Elizabeth, you must take the baby and go off. I want you to stay with friends on the Jordan,” he ordered after explaining his fears. Elizabeth began to cry. She had not been away from Zechariah more than a week in over thirty years. “Herod is insane,” Zachariah continued. “He will do whatever he wants. Pack what you need and go today. Take the necessities and take our servant with you. There is money to purchase what you need once you get there.” Elizabeth stood there not moving. He patted her shoulder. “Do as I say, my dear. I will join you as soon as I can.”
Elizabeth took what she and the servant could carry and left in tears by midday. It would take three days to get there.
Afterwards, hours before sundown, Zechariah thought to go into the temple area and pray for the safety of his dear wife and child. He was amazed at the number of soldiers, temple soldiers and Roman ones, who were around. He walked through the courtyards, climbed the stairs and went through the Nicanor gate. The great altar was straight ahead. He knelt and faced the Holy Place, bowing down to pray.
Within minutes, he heard a commotion behind him. Roman soldiers were climbing the stairs to the gate. Zechariah slowly rose from his position and turned to face them. Before he could speak, two of them were grabbing his robes.
“Are you the priest Zachariah? Where is your wife? Where is your child? Do you have another house besides the one in Ein Kerem?” The questions came from both right and left and the small Zechariah turned his head to look at each in turn.
Certainly, Zachariah would not tell where his loved ones had gone. He gritted his teeth and vowed to say nothing. They slapped him, pushed him, got into his face. But he answered no question.
“Is this not the man whose wife was barren? If they had a boy, maybe they think he is a king!” one of the soldiers laughed. Then his face drew angry. “Don’t you know what we can do to you if you don’t answer?” Zachariah stood his ground. They began to shake him, tear his robes, hit him. Zachariah may have let out a whimper, but that is all. More angry than ever, the two men threw him down. His head hit the large altar and he blacked out. One of the soldiers thrust his sword into the poor old man and his last thought was that he had saved his son.
Joseph and Mary did not hear about Zachariah’s end for years. Elizabeth, profoundly sad over the loss of her beloved husband, turned the care and raising of her son, John, over to the Essenes in the desert, since he could not go to the temple school as long as Herod was alive.
The two boys grew up in wisdom and grace.