Something stirs in me. No. Someone.
I rest my hand there, wait, feel nothing. “Too soon,” my mother says quietly, watching me from the corner of her eye. She looks at me as she does when she thinks I am ill – looking away without quite looking away, watching carefully for signs of trouble.
Tonight, she worries about my mind.
“You’re in no shape to travel,” she says. “Wait a few days.”
Wait, she means, until I get over this crazy idea. Wait until everyday life wears it down and drowns it out.
At first, she feared there might be something in it – the pregnancy at least. If so, better for me to get out of town before anyone finds out. Now, she has decided there is no man, and so I am not pregnant, and so it is better to play along and let life gradually change the subject.
I told her about Gabriel – at least I started, but she shook her head and turned away. “Oh, my dear girl, what dreams you have!” She chuckles in a friendly way, but I can see her alarm. Angels are not easily explained, not quickly drowned out by trips to the market and evening meals.
“Mother, he told me I am to have a child! He did! And the baby will be called Son of the Most High!” There is a clanging of pots as she kneels at the cook fire, covers my crazy words with the racket, seeks refuge in ordinary things.
I could almost wonder if she’s right. Who ever heard of such a thing? That a girl should conceive without a man and give birth to a great king? And even if this could be, why would it happen to me?
But I know what I saw. I know what I heard. I have sought you, oh God of our fathers – sought you with all my heart since I was a child. You have heard my prayers, and you have seen me, and I will not turn away.
Early the next morning, I leave a note on my bed and slip from the house before mother wakes. A dewy breeze washes down from the fields. A bright moon glares overhead. The road is a white serpent winding out of the village and into the hills. I settle the bags over my shoulders, tap the small lump of money in my pocket, and begin to walk. I will go to my cousin Elizabeth who – Gabriel said – is having a baby in her old age.
Joseph waits at the edge of town, smiles when he sees me, lifts me gently onto the donkey as if I were a doll. “Well, my beloved,” he says cheerfully. “An adventure!” I rest my hand on his shoulder as he walks alongside, wondering what to say. He thinks I’m going to help Elizabeth, which I am, of course. Does he know about my baby? Did Gabriel tell him, too? The miles go by, and he says nothing about it. I give him a smile, wonder if he notices the questions hiding behind it.
We fall in with a caravan of merchants heading to Jerusalem and, a few days later, finally reach Elizabeth’s village. My good Joseph gives me a tired smile as he helps me down. “Whew,” he sighs, “Hope we never have to do that again.”
I laugh. “Why would we?”
He leads the donkey away to pasture, and I turn toward the house. But something is wrong. Zechariah heard us and rushes out, staring wildly but saying nothing. He points to the door, and I run inside. “Elizabeth!” I call. “Elizabeth! Are you alright? And what has happened to Zechariah?”
She hurries toward me, her wrinkled face beaming, then gasps and jerks to a stop. Her hands settle on her swollen belly and tears run down her face. “Oh, my darling Mary, blessed are you for believing the Lord’s promise, and blessed is the son you will bear! Even now, the child in my womb hears your greeting and leaps for joy.”
I suddenly feel as I did when Gabriel came, as if my heart might burst with surprise and wonder. It is really happening. God is doing a new thing, a thing beyond our imagining, and for some reason, he is doing it with me. I am overwhelmed, and my soul glorifies the Lord…
Well, months go by, and now it is evening, and we are in a barn far from home. A gush of water has just soaked my skirt and the straw where I lie. Joseph’s eyes are wide, and he holds his breath, as he does when he is trying to stay calm My own breath comes in ragged little whimpers because I am suddenly frightened, and the room is so cold.
A baby is coming – right now – and we do not know how to do this. Or even what the baby might be. Something gleaming like Gabriel? A mighty spirit? Surely not a fragile, ordinary child.
Joseph gives my hand a little squeeze, meets my eye, and gives me a smile, though I can see the worry hiding behind it. “It’s all right, my darling,” he says, nodding. “Surely God sees us, even here. It will be all right.”
He mounds the straw to make me a nest, gathers the rags and swaddling cloth as if arranging the tools in his shop, caresses my hand in the quiet moments between my cries.
How strange, that the Son of the Most High is soon to be born, and we are here in the dark, alone.
But then, as I pray, the empty barn is changed – it seems crowded now with hundreds of joyful faces I can feel but not see, and I know we are not alone. Joseph notices, too. He looks around, puzzled, then breathes deeply, and says, “Do you smell that? It reminds me of the angel in my dream.”
When the baby comes, I watch the joy on Joseph’s face, watch him dab his wet cheek against his sleeve, watch the slow, gentle dance of his rough hands as he cleans the child and hands him to me – hands to me my son, my Lord, and my God.
I take the baby in my arms, cradle his little head in my hand. He is small and soft. He does not gleam or fly or speak. Instead, he nestles into my chest, seeking food and warmth, and I finally realize it is true. Our God has put on flesh and intends to live among us.
To us, a child is born. To us, a son is given.