This is my imagining of Christmas, which I dreamed up around 5 a.m. this morning when I couldn't get back to sleep. It probably wasn't anything like this, but I did find it nice to imagine what it must have been like for Mary.
Catholic tradition often portrays Joseph as an old man who had been married before. I usually imagine him in his late 20's or early 30's. No one knows for sure, but that's how I was brought up imagining him.
I personally think Mary may well have had a painless birth. Catholic tradition suggests that she did, because she had no original sin, but some think she didn't because she did suffer some of the other effects of original sin. I tend to think that if hundreds of women using Hypnobabies or the Bradley method can have pain-free labors, Mary could too. I think it's original sin, and not just a crazy pelvis, that makes humans have so much harder labors than animals do -- our conscious mind interferes with our instincts, but our reason is overrun by our hormones, so that we tense up and get confused as to what we have to do next. I think Mary wouldn't have had that. But that's just my opinion.
I hope none of this seems terribly irreverent to anyone. This is just my imagination and it doesn't stop you from supposing things happened very differently.
* * *
Mary leaned on Joseph as they approached the cave and took a long slow breath in through her nose and out through her mouth. Joseph looked into her face, the concern visible in his face despite the fading twilight. "All this walking giving you more contractions?"
She nodded before starting to walk again. "Yes, but they aren't too strong. I'll sit down when we get there."
When they reached the warmth of the stable, though, she didn't feel much like sitting. Letting go of Joseph's arm, she walked past all the stalls toward the back corner of the cave, where there was an open area. The cows regarded her placidly as they chewed their cud, their breath making warm trails of smoke.
Finding a tattered broom leaning against the wall, she set to sweeping the corner briskly. Joseph set his torch in a bracket on the wall and reached out to stop her. "Please, Mary. Let me do it. You need to rest." She relinquished the broom and tried to sit on a straw bale, but she soon felt restless again and was bringing straw to strew on the clean ground.
"It's all right," Joseph said again. "You don't have to do anything, it will all be done in a moment."
"I know, Joseph," she said slowly, "but I just want to get it done." Fetching a bucket from another corner, she filled it at the animals' drinking trough and brought it to their nest. Surveying the result, she sighed. "That's fine. We will be nice and comfortable tonight. It isn't a bit cold in here."
Joseph smiled wryly. It was a tiny bit of an exaggeration. But the warmth of the animals made it seem almost summery compared to the biting wind outside.
Mary tried to sit down again, this time in the comfortable bed of straw she had made, but another contraction tightened her belly and again she felt more like standing. This one lasted quite a bit longer, and she put a hand against the wall until it passed.
When she looked at Joseph again, his brow was knitted with concern. "I know you are near your time, Mary, but it would be so much better if the baby could hold off a little longer," he said. "In a few days maybe I will be able to find a room here, or at the very least, finish the census business and get back on our way. Surely there will be inns along the road that have room."
"He will come when he comes," Mary said calmly. At that moment, she felt at peace with whatever happened. There had been this great sense of urgency to get to Bethlehem first, to hold off labor, not to deliver too soon. But now that she was here, she didn't feel like it mattered much if she went into labor tonight, or in a few weeks back in Nazareth with her mother there to help her.
Joseph let out a worried sigh. "This is all my fault. If only we had left earlier, maybe we could have found some room. It's just our luck that the census is now. Any other time of my whole life would have been better."
Mary went to him and put her hand on his arm. "It's all right, Joseph. You did fine bringing us here, and everything else is out of our hands." She meant to say more but her belly tightened again, insistently. A long, slow breath felt better than talking. She shut her eyes.
When she opened them again, she knew Joseph knew it would be tonight. He took her hand in both of his. "Mary, I -- I have no idea what to do! Is it all right to leave you here? Should I go get someone? Perhaps there is someone at the inn ... at least some old woman who has had a few of her own ... but we have nothing to pay them. They took so much just for the stable!"
The baby within her gave her a little wiggle. So comforting to know he was all right. She smiled at Joseph. "I think I will be all right," she said quietly. "My mother told me what to expect. The poor have been having babies since Eve bore Cain, and we've been okay."
The helpless look on Joseph's face moved her to pity. "Here, Joseph, this is what we do first. We will walk up and down the stable. You take my arm. I will lean on you."
This simple instruction seemed to calm him a little, and they began to walk. At first, they stopped once on every trip down the barn, while Mary leaned on Joseph and breathed. Then they stopped twice, and then at every few stalls. Then she didn't feel like walking anymore, and they went to their straw-covered corner. Mary put both hands against the wall and leaned forward, telling Joseph to push against her back. It didn't feel necessary, but her mother had said this was something the midwife did, and it seemed to make Joseph happy to have something to do.
Time seemed to slow as she leaned against the wall. Belly tense -- breathe in, breathe out. Belly relax -- slump forward, breathe in, breathe out. The walls of the cave seemed to disappear, and it seemed she could see the stars wheeling overhead. Were there angels in the cave? There seemed an intense presence of many onlookers. When she hummed through the contractions, she thought she heard many voices join her. But she didn't feel shy or afraid -- they were breathing in and out with her, helping her baby move down. A few times Joseph tried to speak, to ask her questions, but she couldn't seem to answer. Shaking her head, she whispered, "Shhh. Shhh."
All at once, the strangeness in the room seemed to lift and she could see around her again. Her belly was tensing in a new way, pushing down, hard. It was time for the baby come out.
When the pressure eased, she moved to the very corner and knelt down on the straw. She whispered to Joseph, "Come here. Sit behind me." He moved to support her from behind, and she raised her knees into a squat. Leaning against his motionless bulk, she felt steadied and calm. She raised her robe above her knees and waited for the pressure to return.
When it came, it came in full force. There was nothing for it but to make a long, slow sound, a birth song for her baby. Her voice vibrated in a long, deep tone. The cows lowed in response. That seemed right. They knew how to bring a baby down.
Suddenly there was a splash in the straw. She reached down and felt the baby's head just beginning to emerge. There was fine hair on it, fine wet hair. It receded, and then as the pressure increased it came forward again. She resumed her birth song. For a moment it seemed again that there were angels, that they were joining her in the song.
A few more pushes and it was out, in her hands. She couldn't quite see, but she felt its roundness with both her hands. Then she felt it turn, and a moment later the whole baby shot out into her hands. Instinctively she raised him up against her. Joseph peered over her shoulder. "It's here! It's okay! It's alive!" His voice was charged with relief.
Tilting him away from her for a moment, Mary gazed at her son. His tiny dark eyes gazed back at her, barely visible in the torchlight. They were full of infinite wisdom. She couldn't look away, even though her vision was swimming with tears. Now she was positive she heard angels singing, but she couldn't tear her eyes off her beautiful son to see them.
Loosening her robe, she pulled it down over her shoulder and brought her infant to her breast. He snatched at it eagerly, rearing back and grabbing on. His eyes roved up toward hers, unfocused but deep. Mary's heart brimmed to overflowing as she watched her son drink her milk. It had seemed so incredible when the angel had said he would be the Son of God. But with him in her arms, it was impossible not to believe. The tiny, wrinkled body, its apparent frailty, was of no consequence -- his eyes made clear he had come straight from heaven. But when she tried to wrap her head around the notion of such immense power clothed in such fragile weakness, of a being that had created her now relying on her milk to live, it simply failed. There was no understanding this. But her heart was full, and she did not need to understand.
She tore her eyes from the baby and turned her head around to Joseph. He was smiling at her, and his eyes, too, were filled with tears. Half afraid to break the silence, she whispered to him, "We will call him Jesus."
* * *