He’s sleeping, now. My baby. My son. Red-faced from crying, his breaths come in little hops and skips, tiny fists curled against his cheeks. So small. So fragile. So perfect. I’m afraid to move, to make a sound – afraid he’ll wake up again and those eyes will pierce me through, demanding that I make his world right. Me. A brand new mother alone out here in the barn with a brand-new father beside me. Neither of us with much of an idea what to do – how to do this. How to be what he needs.
I’m afraid to move, but I do. Shifting slowly to sit beside the manger, I trace one finger across his forehead and down his cheek, barely touching him. He’s beautiful. But, maybe I’m biased. Maybe all new mothers feel this way. Elizabeth did. I remember her childbed, the way Zechariah had knelt at her side, silently praying, his eyes wide with wonder as the tiny screaming infant was placed in his arms. I had thought the child ugly and wrinkled, like a shriveled date, but Elizabeth had pronounced him perfect and handsome and her husband had shouted with joy.
Yesterday, in my own childbed, my eyes had filled with tears when Joseph placed my son in my arms. Joseph’s hands were bloody as they wrapped the boy in the clean cloths the innkeeper’s wife had provided. The baby had been squalling and messy, tiny arms and legs jerking, his face screwed up with cold and fear. Wrinkled, his head shaped like a cone, my babe had been no more sweet or handsome than Elizabeth’s John. But, after I put him to my breast, after the first panic and excitement passed – for mother and child – he changed. Changed from a strange, shrieking thing to this soft, precious child. My child. My son. Nothing could be more beautiful.
The ache in my back is less now. The journey had been hard – we had so far to go. Relaxing now against the pile of hay Joseph has gathered into a bed, I have trouble remembering much of it. That is a blessing, I think. I don’t want to remember mile after mile of hard road beneath the donkey’s hoofs, each step sending a sharp jolt along my spine. I don’t need to remember how pale Joseph’s face became beneath the dust, how he leaned more heavily on his staff at the end of each day. His sandal strap had broken two days ago, and the sole is now tied around his foot with rope. And yet he still works to make sure this rough barn is warm enough for his new son.
Settling back against the hay, I tug the rough blanket higher, shivering a little. Joseph is busy with a kettle of water over the firepot, a heavy metal vessel that a shepherd had brought, the coals within it warm and red. The innkeeper had frowned at first, afraid for his barn, for his animals and livelihood, but his wife had taken him aside and whispered sharply in his ear and he’d been content to lecture Joseph about the fire and its care. I can feel the smile on my face as I watch my husband – this new father. No one is more careful than Joseph. All this time, through all the strange and wondrous changes that have come upon us both, he has made sure to care for me, and now, for this child.
Somehow, some way, our child.
The shepherds came last night, in twos and threes, their flocks swarming nearby hills. Simple men whose faces were filled with awe, shining with the light of heaven, coming to greet their promised Savior, their King. My son. They said very little but brought what they could. The thick fleece that lies across the baby’s chest. Half a bushel of grain. A leather flask of watered wine. Most of all, they brought their prayers, their praises, and I watched, silently, as God’s favor touched each one through a single look at my sleeping babe.
As if drawn by a tight cord, I turn again to the baby. In the quiet while the child sleeps, as I watch his small chest rise and fall and the pursing of his hungry lips, the promises of God’s messenger come to my mind. A child. A King. A Savior. The Son of God. Such a weight of glory for such a tiny babe. A weight of glory and the burden of a Kingdom beyond imagining.
The messenger’s words became a solace to me on the journey. They soothed my heart during the long nights and my bones during the days of travel. I had little to do but think and remember, to imagine the shining king, the savior of God’s promise. I’d wondered if he would look different, if he would be born with knowledge behind his eyes, eyes that could see through to my soul, could see all my doubts and fears and wonderings. If he would judge my fumbling hands and my Joseph’s worries. If he would be bigger, stronger than other babes. More beautiful. More serene and wise. If the stamp of God’s favor would shine out like golden light.
But, once I held him that first time, all I could do was what every mother did. Through tears of relief and a deep, blossoming well of joy I counted.
Two eyes. Dark and warm like my father’s. Two ears, tiny shells perfectly formed. A nose, barely there, a bump between two round cheeks. Two arms, two hands, grasping for me, for me, a mother now. His mother, or at least trying my best to be. Two legs and feet, kicking and squirming against me. Ten fingers and ten little toes.
I had counted, and I forgot, for a moment, that this baby was different. That he had come to me by God’s miraculous hand. That I was not an ordinary mother and Joseph not an ordinary father. For a moment I forgot that he was not mine, not ours, not the way an ordinary child belonged to his mother and father, blood and bone and skin. He was a miracle. A gift.
A gift to the entire world. A gift God placed in my two hands, my ordinary, awkward hands. How could the God of the universe trust me with so precious, so extraordinary a gift?
“Mary?” Joseph kneels beside me, brushing a hand across my wet cheek. “Are you well?”
I turn to kiss his palm, tasting salt. “The Son of God, Joseph. He is the Son of God.”
“He is our son, Mary.”
“Is he? Is he ours?” I ask, my voice trembling.
He takes my hands between his. “He is. He is ours. Our child. Our charge. To love and raise and teach and cherish, for as long as we are given him. Just like any ordinary family.”
I shake my head. “Not like any other.”
“Maybe not, but God gave this child to you and me, Joseph and Mary, two very ordinary people.” His laugh is low and deep. “We can only do what ordinary people do, can’t we?”
My stomach churns with fear. “Why did God choose us? He’s special and we are not. What can we give this child of God, this Savior? This King?”
Joseph touches my cheek, urging me to turn and look again. The babe had found his fist and was sucking on it, making slurping sounds. “This baby,” he reminds me. “This infant.”
“For now,” I begin.
“Now is all that we have. All anyone has.” Joseph leans closer. “We give him what every father and mother give their children. Because each babe is a gift from God. Each one has a special purpose and plan. You,” he smiles and presses my fingers to his lips, “me. Our parents. Your cousins.” He rolls his eyes. “My unruly nephews. The shepherds who came. Others already on their way. All children are a miracle, Mary.”
I know it to be true, but the angel’s words echo in my memory.
“He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. The holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
The Son of God. “Not like him,” I reply.
“No.” Joseph grunts and shifts from his knees to sit beside me. He sighs, sliding one arm around my shoulders, taking rest for the first time in weeks, it seems. “I know of no other baby visited by shepherds kneeling before him. Or greeted by the Gloria of the stars themselves.” His eyes shine in wonder. “He has been given amazing gifts and promised amazing things. But I believe our God knows what he is doing. He has given charge of this extraordinary child to ordinary people. Perhaps he wants us to give him the ordinary things of life. Perhaps,” Joseph holds me close, “we are the perfectly ordinary people to do just that.”
I let the weight of my fears fall away as Joseph’s words sink into my spirit. “I can be ordinary,” I murmur. “An ordinary mother for an extraordinary child.”
I remember faith, and trust, and God’s promises – not just for this child, but for me and for Joseph, for shepherds and innkeepers, for wise men and simple, ordinary people. For all the ordinary mothers and fathers who are afraid of making a mistake with their own precious gifts.
“We’ll be ordinary together,” Joseph promises. “A mother and father seeking to do their best in God’s eyes for their child. Trusting in Yahweh to show them the way.”