I suppose you could call me a more fortunate girl than most. I was born to loving parents who provided for my needs and taught me the ways of our people. They also gave me more freedom than most of my peers; I was allowed to run just as free as my brothers until my bat mitzvah. I was also fortunate to have Joseph.
Most other girls I grew up with were parceled off to men old enough to be their fathers as soon as they reached womanhood. My story was different. I had known Joseph since he was first apprenticed to John the carpenter. He was fifteen, I was nine, and John's workshop was my favorite place to spend an afternoon. I loved the spicy smell of the fresh cut cypress, the smooth feel of the carved and polished olive wood, the clamor of hammer and nails. But most of all, I loved the little wooden trinkets Joseph would make for me on his breaks while he told me stories he would make up just for me. I suppose it was in those free years that I developed my first childish affection toward him.
It was the tiny carved desert-rose charm that finally made it more. It was his gift to me on my thirteenth birthday, the day I became a woman in the sight of my community. He didn't say much to me, but his gift and his smile spoke volumes. This man loved me, and would someday make me his wife.
Sadly, that was also when the free years ended. I was now a woman, and as such could not engage in idle talk with men outside of my household. But my father knew the desires of my heart and wouldn't let me be completely cut off from Joseph. Father would accompany me on my errands and would always find a reason to stop at John's workshop. As Father talked with John, I would occasionally sneak looks in Joseph's direction. On some lucky occasions Father would work Joseph and I into the conversation, and for a short while we would at least be able to talk with each other, even if it was only about carpentry.
Then one happy day the subject changed. I was not quite fifteen, and Joseph had recently become John's partner instead of his apprentice. John had no sons, and he had already promised that both the shop and the house would be Joseph's when John retired to his eldest daughter's home. Joseph asked Father if he might come to our home that night and speak to him privately. Father agreed, and I hoped.
He arrived in time for the evening meal. Joseph and Father ate alone, and Mother and I sat in the kitchen. Mother pleaded with me to eat something, but I couldn't. I felt so jittery all I could do was sit on the hearthstone and stare at the door that separated us from the decision being reached. After what seemed like hours, Father and Joseph came through the door, both smiling. Father told Mother to join him in the main room for a few minutes, and instructed Joseph to stay with me. "I'm sure your betrothed will be able to keep you entertained."
The door closed, and I practically flew at Joseph. His arms held me tight for a moment, then he let go. "Not too much of that, Mary. We have to be proper." At this he smiled. "At least for a little while longer. Soon I will be the master carpenter in Nazareth, and then we shall be wed." I could do little more than beam.
The next few months flew by, my fifteenth birthday included. Mother and I busied ourselves with the weaving and sewing for my trousseau, and we giggled together over stories of the early years of her marriage to Father. Many evenings Joseph would come to dinner with us, and afterward he and I would sit and talk of the future. We were always sure to be discreet, but we were two young people in love. The most Joseph ever dared, though, were quick kisses on the palms of my hands, which would make me giggle and blush.
My life was happy and complete. But the day came, in early July, when my life and the world changed forever. I was sitting in my room, alone, hemming what seemed like my millionth bed sheet, when the angel appeared. He was radiant and frightening, awe-inspiring and terrible. You cannot blame me for what I did: I dove behind my chair.
The messenger looked at me, and with what looked like a slight chuckle, said, "Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!" Never before in my whole life had I been so confused. What could a messenger from God want with a common girl like me from a little town like Nazareth? The angel could tell that I was still confused and scared, so he continued. "Don't be frightened, Mary, for God has decided to bless you! You will become pregnant and have a son, and you are to name him Yeshua, Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!"
I still didn't understand. I was just a girl, and Joseph and I were only betrothed. Gathering some courage, I asked, "But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin."
The angel replied, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby born to you will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What's more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she is already in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."
What else could I say? I bowed my head and said, "I am the Lord's servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true." When I raised my head again, the angel was gone. I wasn't sure if it had truly happened or if I had been dreaming, but one thing I knew was that if it was true, I would need to get away from home. Unwed mothers usually found an unhappy end on the business end of several sharp stones. The vision had given me an idea. I would go to visit Elizabeth; surely she would understand my plight.
I left a few days later, worried and afraid of what was happening to me. I hoped Elizabeth would have some advice for me. When I arrived in Jerusalem, any fears about Elizabeth not wanting me were calmed. She ran (or rather, waddled in a way that resembled a run) to greet me with open arms. When she hugged me, though, she gave a short gasp and stood back. She gave me a glad but strange look. "You are blessed by God above all other women, Mary, and your child is blessed! What an honor this is, that the mother of my Lord should visit me! When you came and greeted me, my baby jumped for joy the instant I saw you!"
I smiled, and my hand wandered involuntarily to my stomach. "So it is true."
"Yes, Mary, the Holy Spirit spoke to me. You are with child, and he is the Messiah. Oh, Mary, you and I shall have such talks. I know little of mothering, but you are nearly young enough to be my own daughter, and I will teach you what I know. This task will be harder for you than most, but I will shelter you as I can."
I hugged her again. "Oh, thank you, Elizabeth. I knew I could trust you."
My life with Elizabeth seemed almost normal. I helped her with the tasks her advanced pregnancy kept her from doing, and in turn she coached me through the hard early days of my own. After the nausea subsided in my second month, I thought that my troubles were over for a while. But, that was when Joseph decided to make a trip to Jerusalem to visit me. Suddenly I was a frightened little girl again. What was I going to tell him? If he didn't understand the circumstances of my condition, and I truly doubted he would, since I myself was still trying to grasp it, then he would be heartbroken. He would feel that I had betrayed him. Still, I knew I had to tell him eventually, and the sooner, the better.
That was my attitude when Joseph showed up at Elizabeth and Zechariah's door. He looked overjoyed to see me, and I hated to put an end to the boyish smile that lit up his face. I had asked Elizabeth to let us have a bit of time alone, so as soon as she welcomed him, she excused herself to the kitchen. Joseph was grinning from ear to ear. "Mary, I have the most wonderful news for you! John has decided to retire, and by the end of next month, the house and the workshop will both be mine. We could be married just as soon as you come back home, after Elizabeth has the baby. She already said that she simply couldn't spare you until then. But just think, Mary! Finally, you and me, a home of our own..." He trailed off into happy silence.
I tried to smile. "That's wonderful, Joseph." I motioned for him to sit down. The news I had to tell him might well knock him off his feet. "I have news for you too." I paused, trying to formulate some good way to tell him, but in the end it just flew out. "Joseph, I'm pregnant."
He laughed heartily. He thought I was joking. "Mary, being around your cousin has given you too many ideas. Girls don't get pregnant from kisses." He grinned, and to make his point kissed my hands again. Then he caught the crestfallen look on my face, and the laugh died on his lips. "You're serious? But... how? We never..."
I looked down and replied in a pained whisper. "He isn't yours." I tried to go on and explain, but before I could, Joseph stormed out the door surrounded in a cloud of his own pain and anger. I cradled my head in my hands, sobbing uncontrollably. How could I have thought that everything could just be alright? Now the one man I thought would stand by me for the rest of my life had deserted me. I felt so alone. Not even God seemed near.
But sometimes those times are when God is nearest. The next morning, I was going about my business sweeping the courtyard, trying not to resign myself to crawling into a corner and dying. I heard someone come through the gate, but I thought it was one of the many messengers that came running back and forth with Zechariah's written messages to the other priests, since he was currently mute. The last person I was expecting was Joseph, with the most loving expression I had ever seen on his face. He came over and gathered me into his arms, a much more familiar action than we usually indulged in, and all he said was, simply, "I'm sorry, Mary." I was confused, and justifiably. The last time I had seen him, he seemed ready to simply put me away, or worse. Now, he was my Joseph again, only somehow changed. All I could do was stand there and wonder, until he began to explain.
The story he told me was basically this: When he left me the day before, he had fully intended to go straight to my father and dissolve our engagement. However, it was a long trip back to Nazareth, so he decided to get a room and sleep there for the night. After lying awake, his thoughts restless and angry, he finally fell asleep. In his dreams, an angel appeared to him and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to go ahead with your marriage to Mary. For the child within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." After that, he awoke and saw it was morning, and ran straight away to come and apologize to me.
"Mary," he said, "I'm not sure how or why God chose the two of us, but I know that somehow things will work out right." We decided to get married as soon as I came home; I would still be able to hide my condition at that time. That agreed upon, Joseph set off toward home to make the arrangements with my family. I remained with Elizabeth, now happy and certain that I could face whatever was ahead of me, as long as I had Joseph with me.
Elizabeth's time came late one October night. I had been sleeping soundly until I heard her cry out. I ran to her room and saw her doubled over in pain. "Get Deborah, the midwife. The baby is coming." she said through clenched teeth. Too scared to ask anything, I tore out of the house in search of the midwife. Deborah was also a folk healer, and I had been sent to her home for advice and herbs for many of the complaints of my pregnancy, but in my current panic, all the streets of Jerusalem looked the same. Just when I thought I was lost, I saw Deborah's house. I pounded on the door for what seemed like forever, until the small old woman appeared at the door, shrugging a shawl over her shoulders and peering at me in the light of an oil lamp. "So, what is it now, Mary? Is Elizabeth's baby coming?" I was so out of breath, all I could do was nod.
I spent the next few hours in abject terror. I sat by Elizabeth's side, holding her hand and watching as Deborah helped her bring Zechariah's son into the world. I shook nearly as much as she did with every contraction; I couldn't help but think that this would be my lot in another six months or so. It took until late the next afternoon for the tiny baby boy to be born. I watched in wonder as Elizabeth, who had only moments before been screaming in agony, cradled her newborn son and smiled wearily. Tentatively, I reached over to touch his small face, and his tiny hand reached up and grasped my finger. I looked to Elizabeth, worry straining my every feature. "I don't think I can do this, Elizabeth."
She looked over at me and smiled. "You can, and you will. Remember, you have both God and a man who loves you by your side. Few women are so fortunate." She looked down at her son again. "So small. So small, Mary, and yet he's already wrapped those tiny fingers around my heart." She handed him to me. "Here, take him to Zechariah, I'm sure he's anxious to show off his son."
I held the little one carefully as I found my way downstairs and out to the courtyard. Zechariah was there with several of the other priests, impatiently waiting for news of his son's birth. I handed the little bundle to him with a smile, and he cradled him gently, beaming silently at the newborn in his arms. All the men crowded around to catch a glimpse of the priest's son. "What will you call him?" they each asked. A few suggested, "He should be named Zechariah, for his father." Zechariah shook his head no, and tried to motion for something, which was nearly impossible with an infant in his arms. Frustrated, he unceremoniously handed the child off to me and motioned for something to write with. A bit of paper and a pen and ink were quickly produced, and he scribbled a short message and handed it to one of the men to read: "His name is John." The men puzzled over this. "But, Zechariah, there is no one in your family named John."
With the first words he had spoken in nine months, he replied, "Now there is."
I left Zechariah's household a week or so after John's birth. Elizabeth begged me to stay, but I knew that even with the loosely flowing robes that I wore, my condition would be obvious very soon. It had been arranged for Joseph and me to marry as soon as I returned home. Our wedding passed in a blur; although I was happy as any new bride should be, I had more pressing things on my mind. I took up residence in Joseph's (now our) home, looking, to the rest of the village, like a normal young couple. Joseph was quite understanding of my condition, and had already begun to think of the child growing within me as his own.
Our life together was happy and pleasantly uneventful. The baby was now common knowledge, and if anyone thought that I looked farther along than I ought to be, I quoted my mother's comment that Joseph was a large man and would obviously father large sons. I was happy to finally be able to confide in my mother about my pregnancy, although I never told her of my secret. She helped me a great deal as the months progressed, aiding me in the simple daily tasks that my ever-growing girth prevented me from doing. In the evenings Joseph and I would often share a meal with my parents. Afterward, the menfolk would go to talk of business and news while mother and I would sit and sew swaddlings for the baby. I thought that life would continue like this throughout my pregnancy and for some time to come. However, in my eighth month, the road of life decided to make another turn.
The messenger arrived in Nazareth in the middle of the afternoon, and the bustle outside my window was what alerted me to his presence. It seemed that our entire village had dropped whatever they were doing. I followed the gathering crowd to the center of the marketplace to see what message he might bear.
He waited a few moments until the last stragglers, myself included, found their way there. He then opened a scroll and read off in a loud, important voice, "By the decree of Emperor Augustus, all men must return to the town of their ancestors to be counted. This census will take place in one month's time. Those who have long distances to travel are advised to begin their journeys as soon as possible. Those who do not cooperate will be dealt with swiftly and most unpleasantly."
There were murmurings among the crowd as the messenger left to find food and drink before continuing to the next town. The town of their ancestors? Joseph's family came from Bethlehem, a town many days ride from Nazareth in the best of conditions. With me eight months pregnant, it was sure to be a miserable trip. Joseph appeared beside me, putting a reassuring hand on my shoulder. He smiled over at me, and I decided perhaps it wouldn't be such a terrible trip.
I had decided too soon. Riding mile after mile on a donkey, struggling to keep my balance with my huge stomach fighting me all the way, all of this made me miserable and exhausted. We arrived in Bethlehem as night was falling, and I looked forward to spending a good night's sleep in a real bed. However, as we traveled from inn to inn without a place to stay, my hopes began to sink. We reached the final inn, and as Joseph knocked on the door, I hoped one last time for a warm, soft bed.
A tired-looking man opened the door, and Joseph asked, yet again, "Might you have a room for my wife and I? We've traveled a long way, and we're very tired."
The man scowled at Joseph and said, gruffly, "We're full." As he began to close the door, my reserve finally broke and I burst into tears. I was tired, I ached all over, and I wanted nothing more than to lie down somewhere and rest. Joseph put an arm around my shoulders to comfort me, and the man stopped. His face a little softer now, the innkeeper opened the door. "Wait… There aren't any rooms here, but I can offer you somewhere to stay." He took a lamp from inside and led us down the road to the edge of town. There cut into the hillside was a stable with a few goats and cattle drowsing in their stalls. Joseph tied up our donkey in an empty stall as the innkeeper scattered a little more fresh straw in another. "It isn't much, but it's a place to sleep."
As I settled myself awkwardly onto the straw, I smiled up at him wearily. "God bless you, sir." He smiled back and left.
Joseph was just settling in next to me when I felt a warm rush between my legs and saw a large damp place on my robe. "Oh no. No, no, no, no. Not here, not now."
Joseph looked over at me. "What is it, Mary?"
Fear threatened to close my throat. "The baby. The baby's coming."
Joseph was up in an instant, fumbling about for the lamp he had blown out. He dropped it, breaking it on the floor. He put both hands on my shoulders and said, "Just wait here, I'll find a midwife." Then he ran out into the night.
I sat there alone, clutching my knees in the dark, feeling the first pains begin. I was terrified, and I cried to God. "Surely not here, God. Surely you don't want your son, the Savior, to be born in a stable." The pain wracked my body and left me shaking. Tears streamed down my face. "Oh God, I'm so scared… maybe you picked the wrong girl. I'm not ready for this. Oh God, please, please… help me…"
Joseph returned, and I cried out with joy to see Deborah trailing behind him. She smiled and clucked at me, "Lucky child, that my husband's family is from Bethlehem too. Now lets see to the business of bringing your little one into the world."
The hours passed easier, with Joseph's strong arms holding me and Deborah's skilled hands guiding me. In the early hours of the morning, I gave one last push and heard a hearty cry. Deborah held up the naked, bloody infant and smiled. "You have a strong baby boy." She cleaned him up, wrapped him in clean strips of cloth, and handed him to me.
I looked at the baby cradled in my arms, then to the man cradling me, and finally out into the night where a new star burned in the heavens, and whispered, "Blessed am I among women."