(What I imagined went through Joseph’s mind based on Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26 – 2:21)
All dignity has been stripped of me in a matter of one single evening. The soles of my feet are blistered and raw from the long, long journey from Nazareth to the home of my ancestors. The emperor had decreed a census, meaning that I had to return to Jerusalem to register, with my betrothed in tow. The skin that lay exposed underneath my leather sandals is baked crimson from the unforgiving heat of the sand; black dirt permeated deep into every crevice between my toes. Every lungful of air brought the unmistakable odour of excrement and the stink of animals packed into the cool cave where I now settled to rest for the night. Despite the tedious hours of walking, the aches, and the heavy tiredness, sudden snorts and bleats of animals prevented any sleep.
We were not warmly welcomed in the town of my forefathers. “No guest rooms,” innkeeper after innkeeper had declared dismissively. Never mind that a young, pregnant girl was groaning in pain with every passing minute. They probably only saw foreigners: a coarse-handed carpenter with a teenager in tow. She gave birth outside the doorsteps of the sleeping town, screaming whilst the indifferent inhabitants looked on. The only place of rest for the girl and her baby in the town was shared with the animals. Still prickling with anger at the memory, my arm cradled the exhausted form of my betrothed – Mary – huddled next to the feeding troughs for the animals where the child now lay.
The child nearly broke our engagement apart. The child is not mine. One day my Mary abruptly upped and left for her cousin’s to return three months later, clearly pregnant. Adding insult to injury, Mary claimed that an angel told her that she conceived through the Holy Spirit and is bearing the Son of God. I’ve heard some pretty out-there pregnancy tales but this one must’ve trumped them all.
It went without saying that the couple of days after that particular bombshell were pretty tumultuous. Even through the humiliation and hurt and betrayal and confusion, I knew I couldn’t break our engagement publicly. I can’t shame her in front of her friends. Her family. My family. I imagined the sidelong glances, the whispers that surely will follow her, the slow ostracisation from the only society she knows. I had to do it in secret.
Days before I was to divorce her privately, I was confronted by an apparition in my dreams. An angel, it claimed. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” it continued. The angel confirmed what Mary claimed as truth. The child was to be called Jesus. He was to save the people from their sins.
Is this my mind doing all it can to believe that Mary had not cheated on me? Or is this angel the very same one that visited Mary? One option means heartbreak whilst the other means a turning point for humanity, when the Son of God himself comes to walk with us. I know which one I’d prefer as the truth, but I know which one I believe.
My eyes followed Mary’s gaze to rest on the newborn. The Son of Man. The Son of the omnipotent God reduced to a bundle in a feeding trough full of hay. Blood encrusted the cloths that protected him from the elements, mixed with dust and mud from the cave’s floors. He hadn’t had the best start to life. The indignity of sharing his first cot with farm animals. A father who did not celebrate the news of his conception. A scared mother, a three-day journey away from the place she calls home. And not one inhabitant of this city who cared about his arrival. One thing for sure: this is not the God I know.
Sudden footsteps at the mouth of the cave interrupted my thoughts and jolted me to my feet. Boys – not much older than Mary. Shepherds, judging by their attire. The excitement in every single one of their eyes was unmistakable as they noticed the child lying amongst the animals.
“Angels!” they gasped breathlessly. “A legion of angels! They said that a Saviour has been born in the town of David, wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger!” They stayed long enough to see the child for themselves before sprinting away to spread what they’ve heard in the vision and seen in the humble cave.
Another apparition! One to a teenage girl, one to a simple carpenter, one to a group of boys at the bottom of society’s scrapheap. Incomprehensible parallels to the words of Isaiah, spoken six hundred years ago: “Behold! The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel”.
The virgin. Mary. Immanuel. God with us. The Son of God amongst the lowest of the people, with common animals as company. Could this be?