[The following excerpt has been adapted from chapter 21 of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative.]
Nazareth to Bethlehem was a long journey. Weeks had passed, and they’d exhausted nearly every topic of conversation they could think of, including the details of the strange things they had seen and heard over the past year. They spoke of angels, of dreams, of their hopes for their people, and of their love and fear of God.
The people of the cities and camps where they lodged along the way didn’t know much about Joseph and Mary. They could see that he was earnest and driven and that she was pregnant and about to burst.
But this couple carried a holy secret, whispered into their ears by the lips of an angel and conceived in the warmth of her womb by the overshadowing Spirit of God. It played like a distant symphony, building in its movements and phrases to a coming crescendo that would shake the foundations of the world. But for now it remained a quiet, distant sound pulsing in the hearts of the man and his bride.
To their amusement—and to her discomfort—the baby often turned and kicked. They hadn’t planned to spend the final weeks of her pregnancy on the road, but this miracle didn’t suspend life as they knew it. The extraordinary work of God and the ordinary business of living under Roman occupation ran in tandem. So when the order to register for the Roman census coincided with the final weeks of Mary’s pregnancy, it meant a trip to Bethlehem. They had to go.
Although Joseph lived in Nazareth in the region of Galilee, he was descended from the great king himself, and thus he was Judean. So when the edict came down, he and Mary set off for Bethlehem, the City of David.
The closer they got, the more travelers clogged the streets. In the long line of dispersed Judeans all on the same mission, it seemed Joseph and Mary were among those bringing up the rear.
Joseph asked around but couldn’t find a place to stay, not even at the inn. Every room was full, except for the offer of a stable. It wasn’t much, but it was dry, warm, and at least had the potential to offer Mary a comfortable place to sleep. Besides, they were tired. The stable would be fine.
Her lips pursed as she sucked in short breaths of air. Her belly went tight as a drum. She looked worried, unsure—as if her mind and her body had all at once become strangers to one another. And then as quickly as it rose, the pain subsided. Joseph was at her side, willing and eager to do whatever he could, though there didn’t seem to be much for him to do.
With the shafts of moonlight on her face, she looked beautiful—young but not quite like the girl she was when they first met. In a certain light, that girl was still there, but her features had deepened. And so had his vision.
Between the angels, the pregnancy, the wedding, and the census, the theme of the past year had been about listening to the story of who they were. They weren’t children anymore, but they didn’t quite feel like grown-ups either. They were somewhere between who they used to be and who they were becoming, and there was no place in the world Joseph wanted to be more than right there at Mary’s side.
Minutes later the pain stabbed at her again, only this time it was worse. Then it happened again. And again.
Joseph busied himself, though he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be doing. Make room, he thought. Carve out some space for her to have this baby. There was no one around to coach them, no one to tell them everything would be all right.
He held her and he prayed.
They thought of the angels who visited their dreams. They thought of Adam and Eve taking the forbidden fruit and how one of the consequences of that act of rebellion was shooting through Mary from head to toe, every three minutes now.
It was not a silent night. She strained and groaned and fought for every breath. She pushed as sweat beaded on her forehead. Joseph wiped her brow and told her a hundred times that he loved her, he loved her, he loved her.
Swept up in waves of pain and contractions, Mary continued to push and breathe and strain while time passed. Eventually, as if cresting a ridge, her labor gave way to delivery, and her groaning gave way to the sound of the cries and the coos of little lungs drawing in the breath of earth for the first time.
Joseph laid the baby on Mary’s chest, and to the wonder of the helpless man and relief of the weary woman, they beheld him who, though he was the Son of God, was every bit a fragile, tiny baby.
The little stranger was nothing like Mary imagined—not because he looked different from other babies, but because the face of a newborn has little room for distinctive features. It would be a while before this child’s wide eyes would stare into hers or his baby fat would fill in the wrinkles around his neck and thighs.
But one thing was certain. He was beautiful.
She loved everything about him—his tiny nose, his wisps of dark hair, his perfect little fingers and toes. The sound of his first cry was the loveliest tune she had ever heard. It was as if this baby had gone from being her burden to her physician, healing the toll her pregnancy had taken on her body simply by lying across her breast, absorbing her warmth.
Together, Mary and her husband cleaned him and wrapped his little arms and legs in strips of cloth to keep him warm. When they laid him in a manger and finally exhaled, they gave him the name Jesus. And both remembered why.
The incarnation of the Savior of the world could have come to pass any number of ways. But God, in his infinite wisdom, chose this couple for this night in this shelter. This boy, the angel told them, would be the heir to David’s throne. He would be their wonderful counselor, their mighty God, their everlasting Father, their Prince of Peace. The government would be upon his shoulders. (Isa 9:2-7)
But there was nothing particularly complex or regal about this moment in the stable outside Bethlehem. There were no heralds in the streets announcing the birth of a king. By all appearances, it was a humble, simple affair, seemingly incidental to everything else going on in David’s town that night.
But it wasn’t incidental. It was the most significant moment in the history of the world. There on the edge of Bethlehem, a child was born. A son was given. And the zeal of the Lord Almighty accomplished this. (Isa 9:7)
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).