While Mary Slept: A story for Christmas Eve

By David Schell
Originally written for the Christmas Eve service at Fairplain Presbyterian Church in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and originally read in the Christmas Day Special Message.

Joseph stood over the manger looking at his baby boy. Well, his in every sense but one.

After all the fussing over him from his Bethlehem family, Aunt Elizabeth had finally chased them all to bed and given him and Mary a moment’s peace – a moment that Mary used to crash very hard into a dreamless sleep on the bed of straw some niece or nephew had made when he wasn’t paying attention.

It was late. How late, he didn’t know, but it seemed the sun had set hours ago.

He was glad his cousin had cleaned up all the blood. He was so exhausted from supporting Mary all night he wasn’t sure he would have been up for it now.

He knew he should have been adoring, but his mind wandered. Not to the birth, or the surprise of the placenta coming after, or how bloody the baby looked when he came out until they cleaned him up with some cloths, or how the baby hadn’t cried at all – not until the midwife hit him to clear his lungs, and then the little Lord Jesus lots of crying he made, until the midwife placed him on Mary’s chest and he wiggled up to a breast for his first tiny meal..

No, Joseph’s mind was somewhere much more mundane and not very adoring at all.

He was thinking about where *his* next meal would come from.

More to the point, he was thinking about the job offer his cousin Saul had given him, the gig building the wooden frame for a new stone bridge the Romans were maybe or maybe not going to build. It wasn’t a sure thing, and who knew what he’d do after.

Cursed census. It had made him miss a really good job to have to be out of town this long, and, sure, they were understanding about it, but the work had been drying up some in Nazareth. He’d had to take jobs further and further away from home, which was all fine enough when he was a single man and could sleep in his robe wherever was warm and dry, but now – he looked over at his sleeping new wife and their – her – finally sleeping firstborn son, and somehow managed to feel both love and worry at the same time.

No, the cold hard ground would not do for them. He had promised her father he would care for them properly, but he wouldn’t have dreamed of not doing it even if he hadn’t promised.

The baby in the manger woke up and started fussing. Joseph, still exhausted, looked over at his new wife and scooped Jesus up.

It was strange. Before he had always been awkward around babies, uncomfortable holding them, but this one was different. Not because it was holy, but because it was his – again, asterisk – and because after those hours of labor Mary needed all the sleep she could get.

He was still crying. He tried walking around, but this seemed to only make him angrier.

Mary stirred and a female voice from further inside the house whispered loudly, “BURP THE BABY!”

“What?” He whispered loudly back.

“BURP. THE BABY.”

Right. That was something they had told him how to do. He was definitely a grown adult and could do that.

He cautiously held baby Jesus to him, held his mouth over a cloth for burping, and tentatively tapped his back.

His Aunt Ruth appeared in the dark.

“A little harder than that, Joe,” she half-whispered. She always called him Joe. He tapped a little harder.

Ruth gestured that he should hit harder. He did, and was rewarded with a puddle of partially digested milk on the shoulder of his robe, and a silent baby.

“Good job,” Ruth said, and went back to bed.

He could not have known he was far from the first and very far from the last father to have his child intentionally miss the burp cloth.

As a man of the first century, Joseph would also not have known the phrase, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” but as he paced the dirt floor with Mary’s child in his arms and fresh spit-up on his robe, despite his best-laid burp cloth, he considered that maybe this unplanned trip to Bethlehem was, in some way he did not understand, God leading him.

He placed the baby, still securely wrapped, back in the manger.

He didn’t know what would come of the job with Saul. He only knew whatever came, he had to take care of this little family, and that God had always helped him to get by.

Babies don’t smile, you know, at least not on purpose, until a few weeks after they are born, but sometimes their facial muscles spasm just right and it looks like they are.

Baby Jesus smiled, just then, and mercifully went back to sleep.

Joseph laid down in a soft looking pile of hay he had been eyeing while burping the baby, and did the same.

About David M. Schell


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