This is a fictional account of the First Christmas, a retelling from Mary’s perspective.
I remember the first birth pang, so different from the tightenings I had been feeling for the past weeks when we were traveling to Bethlehem and I was so worried that I would have the baby right there on the side of the road.
Joseph was equally nervous, every time I placed my hand on my belly he asked anxiously, “Is it your time?!”
I always raised my shoulders and eyebrows in question, a half smile and grimace on my face as the pressure passed.
“You’ll know when your time comes,” an older woman in our caravan told us one night as we sat by the fire. Joseph had just asked the question again as I pressed my hand to my belly as another tightening gripped me.
“Is this your first?” the woman asked as she ladled stew into a wooden bowl and handed it to me.
“You’ll know,” she said, nodding along with me. “I’ve had seven, but with my first, oh, every little twinge—I wondered, Is it time? Is it time?!”
I laughed and she patted my knee in a motherly way, making my heart ache with missing my own mother. She was in our caravan but had kept her distance from me from the moment I told her about the baby. I don’t know what hurt more: The fact that she would not be present when I gave birth or that she didn’t believe that I was telling the truth about how the baby came to grow inside of me.
The woman tucked a silvery strand of hair back into her headdress as she leaned over the pot to stir the stew. “Your body is getting ready right now, with those tight feelings, that pressure.” She handed a bowl to Joseph. “It won’t be long now.”
“Just hope he waits until we get to Bethlehem!” I sighed, carefully sipping the hot broth.
“Two more days, love,” Joseph murmured.
I sighed again heavily, shifting my weight and trying to get comfortable on the hard ground, despite the thick blanket Joseph had folded up for me to sit on. The end of the journey—nearly 100 miles from our home in Nazareth!—could not come soon enough. I mentally fought against bitterness at Ceaser for forcing this census at such an inopportune time, for me at least.
Not everything is about you, Mary. I heard my mother’s voice in my mind. The longing for her became even more acute. She had guided my character so carefully, so faithfully, leading me towards love and selflessness in all my words and actions.
My thoughts were another story, but I tried, oh how I tried, to honor her and honor the God she had taught me to love.
But this…me…this child heavy within me, was beyond even her great faith.
“He said this child is to be the Messiah, Mama! The Son of the Most High!” Even as I said the words out loud, words that believed with all my heart to be true, I knew how foolish I sounded.
“Who do you think you are, Mary?! Do you think you are the first woman who has been delusional enough to think that she will give birth to the Messiah? What about Joseph?! You have ruined us, brought shame on this family! God will curse you for this sin!”
Tears filled my eyes as I though about our fight. Her words cut me to my very soul, especially after I had had such an encouraging visit with our cousin Elizabeth who affirmed my mysterious pregnancy without question.
I hastily wiped the tears from my cheeks with the back of my hand but not before Joseph noticed.
“Mary…what is it?” He crouched beside me, taking my hand in his, his brown eyes full of concern.
I quickly shook my head and smiled wobbily. “Nothing. It’s nothing. I’m just…tired.”
But my smile collapsed and the tears came in earnest as I bowed my head over his hand clasped over mine in my lap.
Tired of so many things.
Of this endless, dirty road.
Of the stupid census.
Of the estrangement between me and my beloved mother.
Of the side glances and whispers behind cupped hands.
Of the gossip and judgmental stares at my growing belly these last 9 months.
And of being so heavy, so awkward, so achy, so pregnant.
Joseph gathered me into his arms and I cried on his shoulder. “I know, Mary, I know,” he whispered into my ear.
I cried harder because he did know. And every day I swayed between overwhelming gratitude to God for this wonderful man who married me (even though I was pregnant before our wedding night) and shame that I had brought him into this circle of divine scandal, into the stares and whispers and tsk tsks and shaken heads. He was an upstanding and blameless man in our community. He didn’t deserve judgment.
And yet here he was, sharing this burden with me.
No, not burden—blessing. I reminded myself. And yet I often felt like our father Israel, blessed by God to be the father of a new nation, and yet burdened with crushing trials as he sought to follow the Lord.
Joseph kissed my forehead and leaned back from our embrace, looking me in the eyes as the firelight reflected off my wet face.
“It’s almost over,” he murmured, brushing a rough thumb over my cheek. “We’re almost there. The babe will be here soon too. You can do this.”
I nodded, taking a deep, shaky breath and swallowing hard.
He smiled slightly, looking deep into my eyes. “God is with us.”
I squeezed his hand hard and bit my lip, willing myself not to cry again, but not from exhaustion or worry.
God is with us. It had become a secret pledge between us, a phrase of hope and strength and mystery.
It was also a phase that had sealed our love and commitment to one another.
As Joseph kissed my forehead again and told me that he was going to go check on his father and brothers in the caravan, I repeated the four words over and over again to myself, remembering everything that had happened between Joseph and me in the past few months.
I remembered the day I had told him I was pregnant. I was bolstered by Elizabeth’s encouragement and steadfast faith and yet when we met in the marketplace the day after I returned from my three-month visit with my cousin, my voice and hands shook when I told him “I’m pregnant.”
His lips hardened to a flat line and his brown eyes, always so warm when he looked at me, were startlingly blank, like he was looking at a stranger.
I stumbled over my words, speaking too quickly as I told him about the angel and how he said I was favored, chosen to be the mother of the Son of God.
I blushed when I told him that it was true, that I had missed my courses the last 4 months. His eyes darted down to my hand on my slightly rounded belly.
And then his eyes met mine again and my heart broke into a million shards of white-hot glass.
I saw disbelief, disgust, betrayal, grief, and rage in his eyes as he blinked back tears.
I snatched at his hand as he started to turn away, not caring that we were in a public place. “Joseph, please! No! Don’t go—I beg you! Please believe me…!”
But he pulled his hand out of my grasping fingers and pushed his way through the mid-day market crowd.
I fell to my knees in the dusty road, my legs collapsing beneath the weight of this impossible loss. I clutched the front of my dress and bowed over my knees, weeping.
Oh God…I am so alone. I said yes to You. Please, please, let him believe me. Let him say yes to this baby too.”
I don’t even remember how I got home from the market. I had never prayed so fervently, or cried so much, or felt so despondent.
The day only got worse because my mother asked me why I was crying and I told her everything.
And my beautiful, soft-spoken mother, who had never raised a hand or voice to me, wept and raged, screamed in incredulous disbelief, and wept some more.
And then my father came home for dinner.
It was the worst day of my life and I honestly feared my life would soon be over because do you know what happens to young Jewish girls who get pregnant outside of marriage?
All that night I cried. And I prayed. And I thought about Elizabeth and how she had declared that I was “blessed among women,” and how I had crafted a song of praise to the Lord, writing my own psalm, like David, to express the joy and amazement that filled my heart.
That night in bed, I tried to remember the words: My soul…my soul magnifies…
But my attempts at reviving my song of faith dissolved into more tears. I finally fell asleep, curled on my side, my arms wrapped helplessly around my growing belly.
I awoke to a knock on the door and when I opened my eyes, I realized that it was midmorning. I sat up in alarm, wondering why my mother hadn’t woken me. I then closed my eyes at the pounding headache behind my temples and the rush of memories from the day before.
“Yes, she’s here.” I heard my mother say. I hastily tried to smooth my stringy, salt-encrusted hair back from my face as I heard her footsteps on the stairs to our sleeping chamber.
“Joseph is here to see you,” she said softly, not meeting my eyes.
My heart pounded so hard that my chest literally ached. I would have wept again but I had spent all my tears last night. I felt dried up, barren, even as the babe grew in my womb. I shakily pulled on my outer tunic, tied my headdress over my messy hair and went downstairs.
“I’ll be outside,” my mother murmured as she slipped out the door.
I stared after her as she left, my eyes wide and my heart pounding even harder. As a betrothed couple, we had never been left alone together before. It was against tradition and respectability.
I supposed she doesn’t care about propriety anymore, now that she thinks I am defiled. I sighed heavily as I turned to Joseph, inviting him to sit with a silent hand.
I offered him some refreshment, darting about the room, trying to avoid his eyes.
“Mary—“ He said quietly, and I felt his hand on my wrist. “Please, sit.”
I did, still avoiding his gaze.
Then he took my hand, lacing his fingers through mine, and a jolt of shock shot through my body.
He swallowed hard, twice, as I searched his eyes. Speak! Say something! I mentally begged him, but I felt a thrill of hope as his fingers tightened on mine.
“I had a dream last night,” he began. His voice broke and he looked away from me for a moment, taking a deep breath. “I had a dream about the angel you told me about, the one who told you about the…the baby.”
I felt slightly dizzy, and white lights pulsed behind my eyes. I blinked rapidly. I didn’t even realize I was holding my breath.
Then Joseph looked back at me.
“He told me “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” His voice was surprisingly steady now. “For the child that is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
“Jesus?” I breathed, my eyes filling again. I guess I wasn’t dried up.
Joseph nodded, his tears mirroring my own. “And the angel also said that all of this,” he motioned around the room with his free hand, to me and my small rounded belly, to us. “…all of this was done so that it might be fulfilled by the Prophet: Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” which means ‘God with us.’”
“God with us,” I whispered, hope calming my frantic heart. “God with us.”
Joseph nodded and we just stared at one another for a moment, taking in deep breaths.
Then he shrugged. “And then I woke up.”
We both burst out laughing, breaking the tension that had filled the room since the moment he had entered the house.
“So,” I whispered, searching his eyes. “You believe me?”
“I believe,” he said firmly.
“Will you marry me?” I asked, because I had to.
He threw back his head a laughed again, long, hard, and joyfully. “Yes, Mary. I will marry you.”
I smiled slightly to myself, a warm glow filling my chest as I remembered. The last five months had not been easy. My parents still did not believe me, and my long-planned wedding was rushed forward; they wanted to marry me off before I started to show and tongues started to wag.
None of us could escape the gossip though. Our neighbors knew when our wedding was and when the baby was due.
I became a pariah in our village; my childhood friends were painfully polite to me, our old intimacy gone, and the older women turned away from me at the well when I went to fetch water for the day.
And my mother, my precious, beloved mother, was cold and distant, never asking me how I felt, never asking about the baby.
I shifted my aching hips on the hard ground, cradling my head on my arms as I laid on my right side, facing the fire.
Joseph returned from visiting with his family and lay down behind me on the blanket, tucking me in close to his warm body. He laid his large hand with his strong square fingers gently on my belly.
“I felt that,” he said quietly as the baby gave a firm kick. I chuckled—I certainly felt it too. I heard the smile in his voice and I smiled too. I felt so safe in his arms and felt a familiar sense of wonder that he actually married me, that I was his wife.
Well, sort of. I mused. Soon.
We were bound as husband and wife under God, as Joseph did not hesitate in his obedience to the Angel’s message, but we did not live as husband and wife in the intimate sense, not yet.
Joseph wanted to wait until after the baby was born; he was determined to fully honor the sacred genesis of the babe in my womb.
As we lay together, drifting off to sleep, another tightening stole over my body. I caught my breath, not out of pain, but because my very breath felt squeezed out of me.
Joseph popped up, pulling the blanket off of both of us. “Is it time?!”
“Not yet, you silly man!” I said, waving him to lie down again. I pulled his arm back around me and snuggled in closer.