FOR THE CENSUS, the royal family has to travel eighty‑five miles. Joseph walks, while Mary, nine months pregnant, rides sidesaddle on a donkey, feeling every jolt, every rut, every rock in the road.
By the time they arrive, the small hamlet of Bethlehem is swollen from an influx of travelers. The inn is packed, people feeling lucky if they were able to negotiate even a small space on the floor. Now it is late, everyone is asleep, and there is no room.
But fortunately, the innkeeper is not all shekels and mites. True, his stable is crowded with his guests' animals, but if they could squeeze out a little privacy there, they were welcome to it.
Joseph looks over at Mary, whose attention is concentrated on fighting a contraction. "We'll take it," he tells the innkeeper without hesitation.
The night is still when Joseph creaks open the stable door. As he does, a chorus of barn animals makes discordant note of the intrusion. The stench is pungent and humid, as there have not been enough hours in the day to tend the guests, let alone the livestock. A small oil lamp, lent them by the innkeeper, flickers to dance shadows on the walls. A disquieting place for a woman in the throes of childbirth. Far from home. Far from family. Far from what she had expected for her firstborn.
But Mary makes no complaint. It is a relief just to finally get off the donkey. She leans back against the wall, her feet swollen back aching contractions growing stronger and closer together.
Joseph’s eyes dart around the stable. Not a minute to lose. Quickly. A feeding trough would have to make do for a crib. Hay would serve as a mattress. Blankets? Blankets? Ah, his robe. That would do. And those rags hung out to dry would help. A gripping contraction doubles Mary over and sends him racing for a bucket of water.
The birth would not be easy, either for the mother or the child. For every royal privilege for this son ended at conception.
A scream from Mary knifes through the calm of that silent night. Joseph returns, breathless, water sloshing from the wooden bucket. The top of the baby's head has already pushed its way into the world. Sweat pours from Mary's contorted face as Joseph, the most unlikely midwife in all Judea, rushes to her side.
The involuntary contractions are not enough, and Mary has to push with all her strength, almost as if God were refusing to come into the world without her help.
Joseph places a garment beneath her, and with a final push and a long sigh her labor is over.
The Messiah has arrived.
Elongated head from the constricting journey through the birth canal. Light skin, as the pigment would take days or even weeks to surface. Mucus in his ears and nostrils. Wet and slippery from the amniotic fluid. The Son of the Most High God umbilically tied to a lowly Jewish girl.
The baby chokes and coughs. Joseph instinctively turns him over and clears his throat.
Then he cries. Mary bares her breast and reaches for the shivering baby. She lays him on her chest, and his helpless cries subside. His tiny head bobs around on the unfamiliar terrain. This will be the first thing the infant‑king learns. Mary can feel his racing heartbeat as he gropes to nurse.
Deity nursing from a young maiden's breast. Could anything be more puzzling‑or more profound?
Joseph sits exhausted, silent, full of wonder.
The baby finishes and sighs, the divine Word reduced to a few unintelligible sounds. Then, for the first time, his eyes fix on his mother's. Deity straining to focus. The Light of the World, squinting.
Tears pool in her eyes. She touches his tiny hand. And hands that once sculpted mountain ranges cling to her finger.
She looks up at Joseph, and through a watery veil, their souls touch. He crowds closer, cheek to cheek with his betrothed. Together they stare in awe at the baby Jesus, whose heavy eyelids begin to close. It has been a long journey. The King is tired.
And so, with barely a ripple of notice, God stepped into the warm lake of humanity. Without protocol and without pretension.
Where you would have expected angels, there were only flies. Where you would have expected heads of state, there were only donkeys, a few haltered cows, a nervous ball of sheep, a tethered camel, and a furtive scurry of curious barn mice.
Except for Joseph, there was no one to share Mary's pain. Or her joy. Yes, there were angels announcing the Savior's arrival‑but only to a band of blue‑collar shepherds. And yes, a magnificent star shone in the sky to mark his birthplace‑but only three foreigners bothered to look up and follow it.
Thus in the little tow of Bethlehem… that one silent night… the royal birth of God’s Son tiptoed quietly by… as the world slept.