While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them (Luke 2: 6-7).
When we finally arrived in Bethlehem, I was exhausted and foot-sore. Joseph kept insisting that I ride the donkey he had borrowed in Nazareth for the journey but my hips ached so badly that walking was easier.
If anything is “easy” when you are “great with child.”
It was early evening and chilly as we waited in the busy street outside a modest home on the outskirts of Bethlehem, waiting for Joseph’s second cousin to open the door. To the left of the front door, I saw that their animals had already been corralled for the evening, tucked inside their stalls that looked into the main living area of the house.
“Look!” I lifted the hem of my dress and poked my foot out. My sandal straps dug into the swollen flesh.
Joseph’s eyes widened and he pursed his lips, shaking his head. “Mary—I told you to ride!”
I dropped my skirt over my feet with a huff. “I didn’t want to ride!” Despite my aching feet, I thought my puffy toes were kind of funny but clearly my husband wasn’t amused.
“You need to put your feet up as soon as we—” Joseph scolded but was interrupted as the door flew open.
“COUSIN!” A large man bellowed. His dark eyes twinkled above his black, bushy beard as he ushered us inside, flinging his arms around us and kissing us soundly on both cheeks. “Welcome! Welcome to our home!”
The house was very similar to my parents’ home in Nazareth, though much more crowded. Over a dozen people were seated on wide, low cushions on the right side of the large living area, eagerly partaking of the evening meal. A plump, rosy-cheeked woman stood by the fireplace on the opposite side of the rectangular room, pulling bread from the built-in oven alcoves on the sides of the blazing fire. The flames of oil lamps fluttered in their earthen pots, tucked into nooks every few feet along the stone walls.
As we climbed the two low steps to reach the main floor the house, I noticed the goats to my left, munching hay from the stone mangers placed strategically in front of their stalls. The animals could not venture into the main living area, but they were kept warm in the communal space, as well as providing their own heat to warm the living area on these cold nights.
I took a deep breath and my stomach growled at the fragrance of savory stew and yeasty bread. Only a hint of hay and the earthy scent of “animal” hung in the air. I smiled approvingly to myself. Joseph’s cousin Levi kept a clean, comfortable home.
“Meet my wife, Ruth,” Levi said in his loud, genial voice, holding out a hand to the woman near the fire. She wiped her hand on her apron and then embraced me with a tight hug.
“Welcome…Mary, isn’t it?” She said warmly, then she placed her hands on my protruding belly. “Oh, my dear! Sit, sit, sit! Chana! Eliana!” She called to two girls, around 10 and 12 years old. “Bring me those two cushions, and that blanket too. Come, come!”
She created a comfortable seat for me near the fire and pressed a bowl of stew, with a hunk of bread swimming in the broth, into my hands.
“Thank you.” I sighed as my weight sank into the pillows. Every muscle ached from our days and days on the road. “I’m so glad to finally be here.”
“Here,” Ruth said, gently pulling my shoulders forward. She placed a rolled up blanket behind the small of my back. “How is that?”
“Wonderful, thank you.”
“I remember…” She said knowingly, turning back to tend the food. “You won’t be long now.”
“That’s what everyone says!” I moaned, taking a large bite of the broth-soaked bread. “But I’m starting to believe that he is never going to come!”
Ruth laughed. “Every woman thinks that. Oy! I know I did.” She motioned her chin towards her two daughters who had rejoined the dinner party on the other side of the room. “And ‘he’? I pray God will grant the desire of your heart. For us, we only make girls. Chana and Eliana are my youngest of 6!”
My eyes widened and I was about to comment on the blessing of such a large family, but my attention caught on the conversation between Joseph and Levi.
“…wish I could offer you better,” Levi said sincerely, his hand on Joseph’s arm. “Your letter was the 3rd I received from our relatives looking for a place to stay during the census. Our guest room is full to bursting.”
He used the word kataluma and I knew he was referring to the guest suite on the upper floor of the house. I glanced again at the large group of laughing guests and counted 14, no 15 people. No wonder they were bursting! My parents’ kataluma only slept 8 comfortably.
“But it is our honor to have you here,” Levi said solemnly. “And we will do our very best to make you comfortable here in the main living space.”
Joseph glanced at me briefly, concern showing in his eyes.
It’s fine, I mouthed. And it was. I didn’t care about the guest room. The living area was warm, cozy, and familiar, even if we had to share it with the goats in their nearby stalls at night. Plus now I didn’t have to climb the stairs to the second floor.
“We thank you for your hospitality, cousin,” Joseph said, firmly grasping his cousin’s hand. “Truly. With this census, Bethlehem is about to overflow. I have never seen the streets so full, especially at this hour of the night!”
They fell into comfortable conversation and I went back to my stew, wiggling my toes occasionally. Reclined as I was against the cushions, I could barely see them over my mountain of a belly but the tightness in my toes was leaving and I knew the swelling was going down.
The tightening in my belly was another story. For the next two days, while I was spoiled with lotions and sweets and pregnancy teas by all of my new relatives, the now-familiar (though not painful) pressure continued on an hourly basis, driving me absolutely crazy.
“That’s it!” I told Joseph on the third day of our visit as he walked in the door at midday. He had gone with Levi and the other men to get more information about where to registrar our family for the census.
I was helping Ruth with the daily baking. As grateful as I was for all of the pampering, I felt lazy, useless, and antsy lying around all day, and I insisted on being put to use, if only so I wouldn’t go out of my mind as I waited to go into labor. I slammed the bread dough down on the floury table with a violence that could only be understood by a woman who has been pregnant for far too long. “I have accepted my lot. I am going to be pregnant for-eh-ver!”
He kissed me lightly on the forehead. “Then I am happy. You are the more adorable pregnant woman I have ever seen.”
I growled at him and left a floury smack on his backside as he left the house again, but not before squeezing my hand and giving me a sympathetic smile.
However, as Ruth and I placed the loaves in the ovens a very new sensation came over me: a force that gripped my back, then wrapped vice-like fingers around my belly, pressing down with aching pressure.
I caught my breath and pressed one hand to my lower back and one hand under my belly, leaning forward slightly.
“Mary?” Ruth said, swiftly crossing to me and placing a hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right, dear?”
I blew out the breath I had been holding from my pursed lips as the pang passed.
“I think…” I said, tentatively, hope glowing in my eyes as I look at her expectant face. The mother of seven from our caravan was right! I did know. “I think…”
She smiled. “It’s time?”
For the next few hours, we kept the news to ourselves but the pangs were coming on a regular basis, about 4-6 in an hour, and then 8 in an hour.
I was so happy that I felt giddy, practically giggling into the dough that we continued to shape for the evening meal, pausing during each contraction to grip the table with floury knuckles, swaying slightly until it passed.
When Joseph came in with all the men for dinner, I rushed over to him and clutched both his forearms. “I’m in…” I began, but my smile turned into a grimace as another pang swept over my body.
“Mary!” He said in alarm as I dug my fingers into his arms, my head bowed. I even let out an involuntary groan as the pang finally drifted away.
“I’m in labor!” I said joyfully, looking up into his face again.
The wide-eyed panic in his eyes did not match the joy in mine. I felt him gripping my arms with an intensity nearly equal to my own.
“Haha! Congratulations Cousin!” Levi clapped Joseph on the shoulder with a force that made him stagger. “Now…don’t worry, man!” He said, seeing Joseph’s pale face. “She’ll be all right. Just leave it to the women.” Levi gave him two more resounding smacks on the back before stepping briskly over to Ruth.
“Should I go for the midwife?” He asked, rubbing his hands together.
Ruth glanced at me as I once again clutched Joseph’s hands, bending over in pain.
“Yes, I think so,” she said. “And find something useful for all the men to do after everyone eats. We don’t need you all hanging about and getting in the way.” She patted his arm. “Thank you, my dear. Oh, and bring some water too!” She called after him as he bounded out the door.
The male houseguests ate a hurried meal and then left the house. Joseph was reluctant to leave but after the midwife arrived (a tall astute looking woman named Tabitha), he felt a bit better. Ruth and her two young daughters were staying with me too, and the other wives said they would help in any way they could after they got their little ones to sleep for the night.
I tried to eat a few bites of my dinner in between my labor pains but quickly gave up. I had no appetite. My joyful outlook at finally being in labor quickly faded with the sunset, and I felt anxiety and dread crashing down on me as each pang intensified.
“Try not to hold your breath, Mary.” Tabitha said in her low, calm voice. “Breathe with me—in…and out. That’s it.”
The pain passed and the blessed break began but my body felt shivery, even as sweat broke out across my forehead and down my back.
“Here, let’s make you more comfortable.” Tabitha helped me out of my outer garment and dress, until I was just clothed in my shift. In the process, my head covering came off and my long hair tumbled down around my face, sticking to my sweaty neck and getting caught in my lips.
As another pain began, Ruth hurried forward, and grasped my outstretched hands while Tabitha smoothed my hair back from my face, braiding it gently to keep it out of my way.
“Try to moan in a low voice, Mary.” She instructed gently. “Open your jaw. Clenched teeth, clenched womb. Open jaw, open womb. Breathe…and again. There, it’s passing now.”
The massive contraction almost brought me too my knees and my hands, white knuckled, shook almost violently in Ruth’s.
“Oh no…” I said, pressing my hand over my mouth but it was too late. I fell to my knees and vomited all over Ruth’s spotless floor.
“I’m sorry…! I’m so sorry!” I cried, too weak and overwhelmed to do anything but sob. I wanted to help clean up my mess but another pang surged over me. Still on my knees, I pressed my forehead into my clenched fists, my bottom swaying in the air as a loud moan erupted from my lips. The tears kept flowing, even as the contraction ended.
“Oh my dear, don’t apologize!” Ruth said quickly, rubbing my back with firm circles with the heel of her palm. “It happens! With Eliana, I emptied my stomach about a dozen times during my labor.”
She and Tabitha helped me to my feet, and led me to a soft pallet they had prepared out of pillows and towels, all placed on top of a large oiled cloth. Chana and Eliana worked silently throughout the room, cleaning up, bringing water and honeyed wine, and tending to the fire. I remembered being the helper at the births of cousins and my mother’s friends as a young girl. How was I the laboring woman now?!
Hours passed, I supposed. I didn’t really know as I had no concept of time, lost as I was in the blinding haze of intensifying pain as the contractions seemed to fall one on top of the other.
“I don’t think I can do this!” I cried, clutching at the front of Tabitha’s dress. “I can’t…I—” But another pang crashed down on me, bringing a shrill scream from my lips this time.
“Deepen your voice, Mary.” The midwife soothed, countering the contraction with her strong hands on my lower back. “Remember to breathe. That’s it…blow it out. Try…that’s it. Think of your baby. You are about to become a mother!”
But her words, meant to encourage and bolster my strength, were like a stab in my heart. A mother. As much as I longed to meet my long-awaited babe, my miracle child, I longed for my own mother with a matching intensity.
She should be here! Why isn’t she here? Why doesn’t she believe me?! Why doesn’t she believe You?! Sobs shook my body as I wept with the emotional pain of missing her in this foundational, formational moment of my life. Please…please…I didn’t even know how to pray, what to pray, but my heart cried out the God who had promised to make a record of all my tears, of every sorrow, every longing of my soul.
I suffered through another contraction, my body and heart both smothered in pain. As the pang faded for the moment, I collapsed on to Tabitha’s lap, my tears falling hard and fast. “I can’t…I can’t do this.”
She shifted her body so she was lying next to me, her clear gray eyes level with mine. “You are doing it. You are so close, Mary. You are strong. You can.” She placed her hand on my head and smoothed my hair back, reciting a prayer of blessing. Then she cupped my cheek with her hand. “God is with you.”
I took a deep, shaky breath, locking my eyes with hers and reached up to cover her hand with mine.
“God is with me.” I repeated, willing it to be so, knowing in my soul that by faith it was true, even if my feelings told me otherwise. “God is with me.”
Immanuel. He is with me, God my Savior. My soul…My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
Suddenly, I gasped as a gush of fluid flowed over my legs, baptizing both of us in warmth, and I felt a powerful urge to push.
Smiling, Tabitha rose to her knees, assessing the situation (“Good, your waters are clear”), and the new noises that were suddenly coming out of my mouth, deep, guttural groans, that I didn’t even know I could make.
I vaguely heard Ruth tell the girls to gather more towels, a basin of water, and the swaddling cloth. My body was taking over, bearing down, even as I worked with each powerful wave to bring my child into the world. I closed my eyes tight, trying with all my might to remember to breathe.
“That’s it, Mary!” Tabitha encouraged. “You’re doing beautifully. All right, now rest. We’ll push again with the next one.”
So I pushed.
My hair was soaking wet and I was so hot that Ruth opened the shutters of one window after I threw off my shift in a fit of sweaty rage. I didn’t care that I was naked. Nothing mattered. Nothing but getting this baby…Ohhhh!
“Good, Mary, good! That’s it!”
He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed.
“And again! You can do this. Work with your body. Breathe….”
For the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
“That’s it! That’s it…good! One more! You can do it! Yes! Now…rest.”
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
“Breathe through the pain. One more time! One more time!”
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm…He has lifted up the humble…He has filled the hungry with good things.
“Yes, you can. You can! You are doing it. Don’t give up! You are strong!”
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.
“There it is! That’s it! So close, you’re so close! I can see the crown—your babe is almost here, Mary!”
My whole body shook with exertion and exhaustion as I leaned over my belly, gripping my knees, my throat aching from my guttural groans and screams as tears streamed down my face.
I could almost taste the invisible glory of this moment, teetering on the edge of heaven and earth, consumed by pain and fear and wonder, afraid to go further but too far-gone to go back.
Suddenly the door burst open, making the goats cry out with startled bleating.
“Am I too late?” A voice exclaimed. “Oh, Mary…my darling—I’m here! I’m here!”
And the moment after my mother tucked herself behind me me, bracing me with her body and giving me the strength for the final, life-altering push, my baby entered the world.
To be continued…
Read Part 3 here