She was in pain—a throb that knocked the air from her lungs. She wanted to sleep, but there was a child to care for now. Her husband had gone to find food, because he feared for his wife’s weakness. She was alone; she was scared.
How long had they traveled? Days? Weeks? It felt like months. And for what? To arrive and have nowhere to stay? To set foot in town and have to sleep beneath the cold, black sky? But no, she thought with disgust, they were not beneath an open sky. They were in the home of livestock. A workhorse stomped behind her, sending a wave of dust and the scent of manure. Nauseous from the pain, she wretched into the dirty, yellow hay, and thought, this was no place for a newborn.
The newborn …
He was so quiet. Mary leaned toward the feed basin where he slept. There were still remnants of the birthing on his forehead and face. Now, there were remnants of animal food, too. She wanted to laugh at this humble beginning for the so-called “Son of the Most High,” but in the heavy silence, she feared the sound of her own voice. She plucked a piece of rotten apple from behind his little head and wondered what they were doing there. Is this what God intended? She wanted to scream! What had she done to deserve all this—traveling for weeks on the back of a broken down horse only to deliver her baby in the middle of a filthy stable?
The baby cooed at the touch of her hand, and her momentary anger abated at the sight of his wrinkled, red face. No matter the circumstances, she had done it. She had given birth to this strange child, and a lamb in the corner bayed its approval.
Behind her came the sound of footsteps. She turned toward the doorway, open wide to the night, expecting to find Joseph with some much-needed sustenance. Instead, there lingered three dark figures; she smelled their filth from where she stood, and terror overtook her. They had come to murder her and her baby, she knew. Only murderers would be awake wandering the streets of Bethlehem at that hour. She hobbled before the child, trying to hide it from their view, just as Joseph, her dear, brave husband, stepped up behind the three harbingers of doom.
“What do you think you’re doing here?” he shouted.
The three men leapt at the sound of his voice, and their heads bowed. A gruff voice responded, “Sir, we are but shepherds who have seen a vision.”
“A vision?” Joseph stepped around them, between the three men and his wife, holding a loaf of bread and two fish in his arms.
“Yes.” The shepherds stepped forward into the light cast by a small fire at the entrance to the stable. Mary was shocked to see they were hardly men; they were mere boys. The shepherd continued, “An angel appeared to us in the fields and spoke of a Messiah in Bethlehem. We have come to see for ourselves.”
Suddenly, Mary’s pain was gone. Her anger at the stable dwindled to a pleasant glow. After all, animals weren’t that bad. And the hay smelled sweet, didn’t it? And her child was beautiful, even covered in dirt. And Joseph had found them food. And it was all true, wasn’t it? These shepherds proved it. Mary had not imagined the angel Gabriel. It was real—it was all real. A virgin had given birth to a child, and that child would save his people from sin and death.
Mary leaned over and scooped the child into her arms. Wrapped tightly in fabric, he could not stretch his arms or legs, but he turned his head slightly and let out a tiny cry. The sound of his voice brought tears to her eyes as she invited the shepherds inside and said, “His name is Jesus.”