My wife swung around with a nasty look. "I will NOT have some dirty beggars sleeping in our spare room!"
I reached out to her, imploring. "She is about to give birth! Would you have me send them away?"
"Yes," she snapped. "I will not have the blood and mess in one of my rooms! She probably has no midwife and who would be the one to have to help her through? ME!" She turned away to fill a pitcher. "If they had money, I might consider it."
"We have enough money. I mean, look!" I pulled aside a curtain to reveal the main room filled to overflowing. "We will make a fortune tonight! We can afford to be a little charitable."
"Oh, yes! That's right." She spun around with a platter of meat and two pitchers in her hands. "We show kindness to one and they will start coming in droves." I pulled the curtain aside for her. "If it wasn't for me, this inn would be a disaster!"
I waited a moment before I followed her with another platter. "If it wasn't for you," I whispered under my breath, "the world would be a joyous place."
I put the tray before a large group of hungry travelers and dragged myself back to the front door. "I'm sorry. We don't seem to have any more room."
"Not just a corner for us to lie down in? We would be no trouble." The man was grimy from the long road and I caught the smell of the unkempt donkey on which the pregnant girl was perched.
I thought back to my wife's words. "Have you a mid-wife for her?" I reached out a hand to steady the girl who was too weary to sit well.
The man eased his wife down from the beast's back, his eyes down-turned. "We have no money for one. We brought just enough for the taxing."
I sighed, looking back to make sure my wife was not in sight. Lowering my voice, I gave them an empathetic smile. "The best I can do is to put you in our stable. At least it will keep you from the worst cold." Stepping outside, I pushed the door closed and grabbed the lantern from its hook on the porch. "Please follow me."
As we walked, I noticed the girl would wince in pain, holding her belly tightly. "Is the baby coming right now?" her husband whispered.
She grit her teeth as she nodded. Her husband held her closer and quickened his pace to match mine. We hurried around the back of the inn and stepped into the stable, pushing horses and mules aside. "I'll make
you a place in the corner there," I said softly, motioning to one side. "If you could attend to your donkey, young sir, I will tend to the girl." The young man nodded and began unloading the beast as I pushed aside rumps and made a path for us.
I made as best a spot as I could from the small haystack that was piled in the corner. The girl was breathing strangely and flopped on the stack as I arranged barriers to keep the animals away. Her husband ran to her side when the moaning began and threw his cloak over her for warmth.
"I must go back inside," I apologized. "My wife will be wondering about me. I will come back with some food and water and blankets as soon as I can get away again." I pushed through the animals and took a last look back as I was pulling a tarp over the stable opening. The young man's eyes met mine. "Take care of her, boy."
He smiled in response. "Thank you, sir." I smiled in return and nodded to him. Putting the tarp that covered the stable opening back in place, I ran back to the inn.
It was several hours until I was able to return to the couple. As I stumbled out into the early morning chill with my bundle of blankets and left-over food, I saw the tarp of the stable flutter and three figures emerge. In fury and fear for the couple, I dropped the bundle and shouted, "Thieves! Get away from that stable!" I began to run after them, but the figures slipped behind the corner of the stable and were gone before I could reach them.
I hurried back to my bundle and ran quickly through the tarp door and to the corner where the couple was, shoving animals aside as fast as I could. "Are you folks all right?"
The girl looked up at me, tired but with the pain of childbirth now gone from her eyes. At her breast, she held a tiny baby, wrapped in its father's tattered cloak. The young man was at his wife's side, nearly cradling her as she cradled their child. They wore faces of such contentment, totally oblivious to the bitter cold and stench around them.
I quickly untied my burden and draped them with the blankets I had brought. I offered them food but they were still awed by the miracle they had just experienced, so I left it nearby. "I don't suppose you brought enough money to make proper sacrifice for the child?"
The man sheepishly shook his head, and I was sorry for ruining the moment. I was about to chastise them for not thinking ahead, but the girl looked at me again and my small anger melted. "I can't very well have a child that was born in my stable not be presented before the Lord." I smiled to myself and motioned to another corner of the stable. "In a roost over there, young man, you will find a number of turtledoves. I want you to take two of them at the proper time and take yourselves to the temple."
The boy nodded, smiling his thanks. I was turning to leave, but suddenly remembered something. "By the way, what did you have?"
The girl smiled and pulled the cloak away from the child's face. "It's a boy, and his name will be Jesus."
I took a step closer to look at the new boy, and it seemed a long time before I could look away. I turned again, but remembered something else. "Those men who were here, did they harm you?"
The young man smiled. "No. They said they came to see the baby."
"They...?" I stopped myself from asking why, not wanting to detract any more from their joy. "When it is light, I expect to see you at my front door again so that we may give you a proper room. We don't want visitors having to come to the stables to see you."
"But, sir. For the birds and the room, have you forgotten that we have no money to..."
I motioned the boy to be still and he obeyed. "They are gifts. For your little Jesus." I turned one last time to leave, but was somehow drawn back. "Young Jesus," I addressed the boy, as I had so many others who had come to my inn, "I bid you welcome to Beth-lehem." I gave a short bow and left the little family to rest.
My wife decided to take her yearly vacation to Jerusalem, to stay with her mother, early so she was not aware that Joseph (as I came to find out the young man's name) and his little family stayed for several months at our inn. As the season warmed into spring, the young man proved a talented carpenter and more than made up for the cost of giving his family a room for such a long time. Of course, I never felt a need for payment as it was such a joy to have their Jesus around the house, it being so long since my own children were that age.
And it seemed that the usually slow months of early spring were a blessed time for the inn, as travelers would pass up the nicer homes and stay with me. They would come and enjoy the food and beds, but I think, most of all, they enjoyed the little son of Joseph.
I could have been biased, but I believe that child was the most special that I had ever looked upon. Jesus rarely cried, but had a somber look that hid a well of laughter and joy within that was so intense that, when released, it filled the inn and the hearts of all inside with unspeakable happiness. I even knew a few travelers who would return to the inn, far out of their way, just to bounce Jesus on their knee and hear him gurgle one more time. He was truly a special child.
In fact, it was my love for Jesus and his parents that brought me home one cool night with such alarm. I burst through the door of the inn to find the little family preparing to eat dinner near the fire. When I saw them, I let out a sigh of relief. "Thank the Lord they haven't come yet!"
Joseph rose from his place beside his wife and approached me. "What is the matter?"
I was flustered still and fidgeted as I spoke. "The soldiers. Herod has ordered the soldiers to kill all of the infant children!"
"What...," the young man gasped. Mary pulled Jesus close to her breast and wrapped her arms around him. "Why?"
I fell into a chair and my head dropped into my hands. "I don't know. I just saw them riding through the streets and breaking into houses." I shook my head and began to tremble. "What are we going to do?"
Joseph didn't answer. I sat in my chair, beginning to sob at the thought of anyone hurting the little boy. I felt a hand rest on my shoulder, and I looked up at Joseph. He was standing above me, but was looking toward the fireplace. I looked as well, and saw a light seem to grow beside it, just a few feet away from Mary and the baby.
I was about to leap from the chair to protect Jesus from whatever was happening, but the light grew so bright that it nearly blinded me and seemed to sap all of the energy from me so that I could not move. The light seemed to draw into itself and I could see the outline of a man, his features growing sharper as the light filled him.
The man looked down at Mary and Jesus and smiled, bending down and reaching out, as if to touch the young boy. He turned and straightened, calling Joseph's name.
"Joseph," he said. "Arise; take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him." The man turned again to Mary and the boy, smiled once more, and began to fade from view, his features becoming vague and faint, until nothing was left of him at all.
A moment after the vision had parted, it seemed something snapped within all of us and our strength flooded back into our bodies. We all arose immediately and began packing for the little family's journey.
We had assembled all of Joseph and Mary's possessions just outside of the stable where months before the child had been born. It brought back a thousand memories of the baby's time here and I began to weep. Joseph was bringing his own small donkey out, but I silently stopped him, led the beast back inside, and returned to the light leading my two finest horses. "You will need fast horses to outrun the soldiers, if you meet any," I finally managed to say.
Joseph nodded and quickly loaded their possessions and Mary and the baby on the horses' backs. He was about to mount himself when I caught his hand, preventing him.
"Who are you, Joseph, that the Lord would send angels to warn you?"
He shook his head. "It is not me that the Lord honors. I am only a simple carpenter." He looked back behind him to the bundle Mary was carrying.
"The boy?" I marveled, but, thinking back, I knew he was special. "Who is he?"
Joseph smiled and laid his hand on my shoulder. "Jesus is the one that the prophets spoke of; the one who would come." He pulled me closer. "Jesus is the Messiah."
I jerked back with a gasp. "The Messiah?" It seemed unbelievable, but if anyone I knew could be the savior of the world, it would be this small child that had brought such joy to my house. "I did not know..."
Joseph looked down on me and smiled. "Of course not." He removed his hand from me and shook the reins, motioning his horse forward. "We must be going now. The soldiers will be watching the roads."
"But...," I stammered, reaching out to the little family as they began moving away slowly.
"Thank you for the horses," Joseph called back to me. "Thank you for everything." Mary turned and waved goodbye.
"No, thank you." I called hoarsely, through my tears. And then, quietly, to myself, "Thank you for finally coming."