There was another knock at the door. Sarah’s face was puzzled as she surveyed the crowd and realized everyone they had invited was already here, plus a number of acquaintances they hadn’t invited but who had happily shown up anyway for the free food and entertainment. As Sarah finished her inventory, Joseph was opening the door to a slight woman, hooded against the cold. At first, she made no movements toward entering the house. Suddenly, as if discovering some wonderful treasure, she shrieked and rushed by Joseph and Sarah, stumbling over other guests, to kneel at Mary’s feet, grasping her legs as if she would save her from drowning.
The rush had caused her hood to fall back revealing a frizzy mop of black hair crowning a middle-aged woman in her late 30’s. Mary, obviously in some shock, looked at Sarah, who shrugged her shoulders, not knowing what to do. Sarah turned and motioned to Joseph to come to the rescue when she heard Mary exclaim, “Omi!” Sarah turned back toward the living room to see Mary and Omi embrace, laughing and crying at the same time. Without looking at Joseph, she motioned for him to wait. Joseph picked up the broom by the door and began to sweep up the dirt tracked in by the visitor.
Moments later, when the excitement subsided and Omi had been appropriately welcomed (coat and sandals stored and feet washed), introductions were in order. Mary apologized for her guest and then said, “This is Naomi from Bethlehem. It was her family that gave us shelter in their stable the night Jesus was born. I haven’t seen her since Jesus was two and we had to leave Bethlehem.” Turning toward Omi, Mary asked, “What are you doing here?!”
“Jesus’ birthday!” she said laughingly. “One of your cousins at home shared with me about the celebration tonight. It seemed that, since I was at his first birthday, I should be at this one too. My husband, Jesse, is handling things at home so that I could come.”
Izzy was kneeling at the two women’s feet. “What was it like, that night so long ago, when Jesus was born?” she half squealed. Omi looked deeply into Mary’s eyes as if, for this moment, they were sharing minds. A smile at Izzy began her story. “I was only a little older than you, my dear, on that night.”
“Bethlehem was buzzing with life and bursting at the seams. The tax census was sending everyone to their ancestral hometowns for registration. Everyone seemed to be meeting family they had never met, and possibly never heard of. Some reunions were happy, but some were – seemingly – not. When it was possible, of course, people would stay with their relatives, but not many homes in town could fit more than an extra family or two. As a result, the two inns in Bethlehem were full and had been for weeks. People were sleeping on the furniture in the lobby, and everyone was forced to pay extra.
“My parents were not originally from Bethlehem, so they had left not a week before to go to Bethel to register for the tax. I was left at home with my older brothers, and we had strict instructions from my parents that we were to take no one into our home while they were away. It helped that our house was at the end of the street, butting up against the hills that border the town, but there were still many inquiries.
“The evening was coming on and I was leaning against the front window sill watching the lights of the town being lit. It was one of my favorite times. Even on that busy day, things were beginning to settle down and people were moving inside. There was one couple, though, that seemed to be rejected at every door.” She squeezed Mary’s hand. “I remember wondering why their relatives were not caring for them since the woman was obviously very pregnant and in pain. They knocked at the door to the inn just up the street from us. ‘Good luck!’ I remember thinking. It was only moments before they were forced to move on. ‘Wait,’ I thought. ‘Not here. We can’t help you here,’ but we were the only house left, so onward they came.
“My brothers were first to the door, staves in hand, just in case things got dangerous. ‘No, we’re sorry. We have no room here,’ I heard them say from my hiding place around the corner. Just then the woman groaned. I don’t think I had ever heard someone experiencing that much pain. I disappeared further into the house as I heard the door shut. It felt as empty as it was dark. I ran to the side window to watch them leave… only they didn’t. The man was just standing there bending over his wife who appeared to be doubled over next to their donkey. ‘This cannot happen!’ I thought. ‘I must do something, but what? Disobeying my parents never ends well.’
“At that moment, watching them and trying to figure out what to do, their donkey brayed. As if in response, Balaam, the donkey in our stable, brayed as well. ‘The stable!’ I shouted out loud. ‘What was that?’ one of my brothers asked. ‘Just going out to check on Balaam,’ I answered back, only half lying. Caring for the donkey was my responsibility, after all. I rushed out the back door and approached the couple cautiously. ‘There is room in our stable,’ I whispered, so not to alert my brothers. The woman looked me directly in the eyes. There was a light there, like a spark of fire, only completely white. It was as if the brightest star I had ever seen was shining out of her and into me. ‘The stable?’ I heard the man ask bringing me back to the urgent present. ‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘Come with me.’
“The stable was the perfect, yet imperfect, solution. It was not in the house, so I wasn’t disobeying my parents, but was still shelter… and not bad shelter at that. I loved my donkey and kept her place clean… well, clean for a stable. Our ‘stable’ was actually a cave set into the hillside behind our house, so it seemed to stay warmer than most other shelters, even on the coldest nights. I led them to the back, grabbed fire from the lantern on the porch, and lit the torch in the stable. It only took moments to grab blankets from the wall where they were hanging while the man arranged some of the hay bales. Balaam stamped and snorted as I led their donkey into the next stall. There was still fresh water in my bucket from the trip to the well earlier that day. I poured some out into the man’’s skin and then watered their beast. The woman groaned again. I glanced back at the house, but seeing no signs of movement, focused on offering whatever help I could give.
“As darkness completely consumed the outside I watched my first birth. It was scary, messy, obviously painful… but beautiful all at the same time. The man instructed me to sit, placed a blanket in my lap, took the crying newborn boy, and handed him to me as he then attended to his recovering wife. I wiped the little boy clean with the bottom layers of my outer skirt and wrapped him as warmly as I was able. He had just settled down, and I was beginning to wonder how I would explain my bloodied clothes to my mother when the man turned back to me and lifted the boy from my lap, placing him gently against his mother’s breast to nurse for the first time. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
“The man turned to me once again, saying, ‘Thank you…’ He hesitated, realizing he did not know my name. ‘Naomi,’ I prompted, bowing my head. ‘I am Joseph. This is Mary, my wife, and that new little one is Yeshua. Are these two your brothers?’ I jumped up, startled, and turned to face my older brothers who were standing just inside the light, mouths wide open and silent. That may have been the first time I had ever seen them so, but my gaze drifted past them to movement in the darkness behind. A lamb was bleating… ‘shepherds?’ I wondered.”