As evening drew near, the air became cooler and brilliant stars began to shine forth in the darkening sky. The sight could not compare with last night’s sky – but then nothing could. Even my mother’s mother said she had never seen anything like that before.
Like so many others, my family had come to Bethlehem for the census. Being faithful Jews, we did not want to come at all but we had little choice. We knew that God did not permit the counting of the people but, at this point, others ruled us without respect for the Law of the Most High.
By the time we arrived, the inn was so full that we had to pitch our tents a short distance from the road, as did many others. This did not bother me in the least because the inn was full of loud and drunken men and, as a young woman, I did not want to be near them. In fact, I was relieved that my father had chosen a spot far from this commotion and closer to the stable where the owner kept his few animals.
I do not want to give the impression, however, that I am the virtuous young woman that I should be at my age. In fact, I have always liked to be out wandering the hillsides like a boy rather than staying at my mother’s side, learning the tasks of a good wife.
I love adventure and watching the clouds and the trees and the sun. I do not mean to be bad. Yet I am still haunted by a time just months ago when I nearly brought great shame upon my family. My face still burns with humiliation when I think of it.
However, tonight I was not thinking of it. In truth, I was glad our tents were a bit further away from the others because I hoped to slip away from the camp once it became dark. There was something I had to see.
Early this morning, my older brother, Joshua, had been laughing and talking with some of the young shepherds and they had told him the most fantastic story.
It was hard to get the full account because Joshua clearly hadn’t taken the shepherds seriously. “Something about the unusual stars and angels singing and a girl having a baby in the stable,” Joshua had said. “Complete nonsense. You know how shepherds are,” he commented dismissively in that superior tone he sometimes used.
Tonight I planned to go see for myself, to peek into the stable and see if there really was a baby. I knew my mother would scold me if she knew. A young woman my age should be above such curiosity and certain should not be seen going off somewhere alone and at night.
But there was something here more than mere curiosity. Certainly I wanted to see the baby if there was one. What girl wouldn’t? But I felt something deep inside drawing me to go – almost as if God Himself were drawing me to go and see, crazy as that might sound.
When I told Joshua this, he gave me that older brother look of his. But when he saw how intent I was on doing this, he promised to watch out for me, to make sure no harm came to me on the way to the stable.
So when it had grown dark and the cooking fires burned low, I slipped away, with Joshua watching out for me. By the time I reached the stable doors, my heart was pounding wildly and I could barely breathe. What did I expect to find inside? If there was a young family staying there, how would I explain my intrusion?
I almost turned around at this point but again, that feeling of being drawn was so powerful – so sweet – that I gently pushed open one of the doors despite my fear.
When the door inched open, my first reaction was one of immense relief. It was just an ordinary stable. Why had I allowed myself to become worked into such a fright?
And then I heard it. The soft whimpering of a newborn, closely followed by the hummed songs of a mother soothing her infant.
It took my eyes a moment to adjust and make out the layout of the stable but then I saw them. The girl – the mother – appeared only slightly older than me, though there was something about her that made me feel she knew much more than me. A man, a bit older, was with her, and I assumed he was the baby’s father, so protective was he of the two of them.
The door had made a slight creaking noise when I opened it and it seemed only to get louder as I tried to be more careful and quiet. However, when the young couple looked up at me, I felt utterly welcome, almost as though they had been expecting me. The mother’s shy smile beckoned me and I walked over to the stall where they had set up their temporary home.
My eyes searched the darkness until I saw him. The baby. He was properly swaddled and lying in a bed of hay they had made for him in one of the animal’s feeding troughs. Despite the conditions, he appeared quite comfortable and content, all bundled up in the soft clothing.
I looked to the mother, my eyes meeting hers, asking without words. She smiled and nodded. I reached down and gently drew the infant into my arms. I rubbed my face into the downy softness of his head and kissed him. Then, I felt an overwhelming desire to hold this little one to my heart – and so I did.
I do not know how to explain what happened next. I come from a large family and I have held many babies before. But something very different happened as I embraced this little one. As I held him to my heart, I felt him enter my heart. I know it makes no sense to try to say this in words. But I felt his life come into me and it was like a peace, a joy, a light entered me that I had never known before. Nor had I ever even known that such an experience was possible.
I held him and I did not want to let him go. Tears streamed down my face as so much pain that I had carried in my heart was released and his peace took its place. I did not know I had so much pain within me – disappointment, anger, shame. It all came pouring out as I wept softly, still holding him to my heart.
When I regained my composure, I noticed that the man had stepped back so that the mother, the baby and I could be alone. I was still holding him but now I let him rest in my arms. He appeared sleepy and I rocked him slightly, unable to take my eyes from him.
Finally, I looked up at his mother, wondering what she would think of my odd display over her infant. Her eyes were soft – beautifully soft and full of knowing. And she smiled. Though she never said a word to me, I never lost the feeling that she wanted to share him with me. She obviously loved him – yet she wanted me, a total stranger, to know and love him as she did.
When I finally left the stable, I felt like a different person – a new person, still myself but fresh and new as though I had just been born myself. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my life was never the same after that. All of this I pondered for many years, wondering who this child was to be and what all of this could possibly mean.