And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
Joseph went from inn to inn, trying to find some place – any place where his wife could rest and give birth to the baby that she carried. The time was near. He was becoming more and more anxious. But door after door was shut to him.
Some said they wanted to help, but couldn’t. Joseph was a stranger – and these were dangerous times. “Who knows if he’s who he says he is,” said one as he shut the door and locked the bolt. Another said, “he could be one of those rebels and he’ll bring the Romans to punish us all.” A third said, “charity begins at home – we have people of our own town who have no homes. Until someone helps them, why should we help someone from another town – another tribe?”
And so it went, from inn to inn, from house to house. All were full. Since the decree went out, hundreds and hundreds of poor travellers were forced to make the long and perilous trek from their homes to the place where they would be taxed. There was much danger in making the journey, but even more in staying. The Romans were cruel. They tortured, horribly murdered and even crucified those who disobeyed. Sometimes they tortured and killed the innocent – just to instill fear. There was no choice but to go.
Each time Mary and Joseph were turned away, their hopeful but forced smiles turned to sadness. Each time they walked bravely into the night on that dark and dangerous path, fearful of every snapped twig – every flickering shadow. They had every right to be fearful. At one particularly dark and secluded section of the road, thieves jumped out, attacked and robbed them. Joseph fought bravely but was overpowered and beaten mercilessly.
Mary received a milder beating not because she was so obviously pregnant, but because as the thieves turned towards here, they were distracted by Joseph’s brave but increasingly feeble attempts to protect her. Each time they beat him down, he dragged himself up, more slowly each time, but with grim determination blazing in his eyes. Each time they attacked him again – punching him, kicking him and finally spitting on him.
For the first few times the thieves were amused by Joseph. They laughed at Joseph’s attempts to drag himself to his feet, slowly raising himself, lifting his gaze towards them slowly, painfully. And Mary was spared.
Soon they tired of the sport. One of them began to take pity of Joseph. “Stay down, old man. Don’t you know when to give up?”
He turned to the others. “We’ve got all we’ll get from them,” he said. “There’s no sport in this. And the woman is no good to us. She’s about to give birth.” A few nodded. They departed.
Some time after the thieves had left, Joseph dragged himself up one more time. He stumbled on the rocks. Thank heaven nothing was broken. But the pain cut through every inch of his body. Still, he stood. He took Mary’s hand and they walked – bloodied and bruised, looking for anywhere safe to collapse in exhaustion. A mile down the road Joseph was a small gathering of houses and another inn. Joseph pleaded with another innkeeper to let them sleep anywhere. The innkeeper was resolute.
“You claim you were robbed? Why come here? The Romans made you leave your home? Why didn’t you stay and fight? Why bring your problems here?” he slammed the door on the shamed and defeated Joseph.
The innkeepers wife heard this. She was brought to tears by the plight of the two travellers. “They are hurt and desperate,” she said. “We have to help them.”
The innkeeper smiled and blocked the door. How he loved his wife’s good nature. He spoke to her as he would to a child. “Your heart is in the right place my dearest, but let’s be realistic. I have to protect us. Maybe they were beaten. But maybe they will bring the robbers back to us. Or maybe they are in league with the robbers and trying to sneak into our inn – to kill us when we are sleeping.”
“I can’t believe that,” said his astonished wife. “You just have to look at them.”
But the innkeeper was resolute. “Perhaps. But even if there is one chance in a hundred that they are in league with the thieves, or would cause us harm – we just can’t take even that small chance. We have children of our own.”
The innkeeper’s wife nodded and acquiesced. But she could not get the couple out of her mind. She spoke to her friends nearby who were also shunning the couple. Some were sympathetic – they were good people. But none offered to help. They looked at her and shrugged. One said – “I’ve helped many people and we have so little.” Others agreed with her husband. Some were less kind. “I know the type. If you let them in, they’ll freeload off all of us – eating our food, drinking our water,” said one neighbour.
The innkeeper’s wife was mortified.”But they’ll die out there. And she has a baby!”
The mayor of the town was passing by and watching the spectacle heard here. Ever the politician, he spoke with deep intensity and solemness, as befitted one of his station. “I agree with you, my dear lady. It’s a shame. We will do something. Just wait a few more months, we’ll be ready to take in some of these travellers.”
“But what good will that do for this couple? If we let them go, they could be robbed again, beaten or worse. And she’s pregnant.”
“I agree with you. But we have to ensure our own security. Trust me. I have the experience of running this town for more than a decade.”
And so it was that Joseph and Mary, turned away at every door in the small town, once again walked off into the desert night – cold, beaten, fearful and with Mary ever closer to giving birth.”
The innkeeper’s wife watched them walk slowly out of town. She moved her hand distractedly to her face. She felt the tears running down. Her heart ached. And in that moment, the realization struck her. She knew she had to act. “They are people just like us,” she said to her sister, who had stood beside her as they both watched Mary and Joseph sadly trudging on the long road out of town. “I’m going after them. When you see my husband tell him, tell him… the neighbour’s wife is sick and I’ve gone to check on her.”
“Don’t be a fool,” said her sister. “The thieves will beat you – or worse. Don’t you have the sense to be afraid? Who are these people to you that you would take such risks for them?”
“Oh, I’m afraid,” said the innkeeper’s wife as she rushed to wind her shawl around her. “I’m afraid of being beaten and yes, I’m very afraid of dying. But I’m even more afraid of something else. I afraid of living with myself having done nothing.”
“You are being foolish. Noble ideals – but you can’t save the world,” her sister chastised her.
“I know I can’t save the world. But I can try to save two people tonight.”
And so it was that the innkeeper’s wife ran off into the blackness of the night to catch Joseph and Mary.
True to what she said, she was horribly afraid. As she ran, in the shadows, she thought she saw the devils that had caught and beaten Joseph and Mary. A cold rush of fear filled her with every flickering, with every noise she heard. Still she ran. Instead of turning back, she let the fear push her forward.
When finally she caught up with them, Joseph and Mary’s cowered in fright. Who was this running devil? Had she led a party to drive them further into the desert? Or worse?
And as the sad couple watched her run towards them, in what they thought could be their final moments – they were perplexed. Why did everyone hate them so much? Why did these seemingly good people abandon them? Yes, they came from somewhere far away and yes their dress and customs were different. But were we not all human beings?” Joseph held onto Mary, covering her with his aching body trying one more time to protect her from what he was sure was yet another attack.
The innkeeper’s wife, out of breath, saw their fear. She tried to sooth them.. “Fear not,” she said. “No one will hurt you.” She held out her hand. “Come back with me. I cannot give you a room – my husband would be furious. But if we are quiet, I can sneak you into the stable where at least you can rest and be safe.”
When they got to the stable and snuck around to the back entrance, the innkeeper’s wife checked. No one there but the few stable animals. At least they would give off some warmth. She left Joseph and Mary and stole silently into the house. After a few minutes, she brought out warm water. She bathed their wounds. She took some straw and a few old blankets and made a bed for Mary. Then she cleaned out an old manger and filled it with straw and fresh cloth. She smiled at the couple. “It’s not exactly fit for a king, but it will be warm and comfortable. You two rest here. I’ll come back later. My husband will miss me and I don’t want him to find you here.” With that the innkeeper’s wife snuck back into the house.
Later that night, in the darkeness, when her husband, the innkeeper, was asleep, she snuck out once again to the stable. She found Mary in labour, about to deliver the baby. She held Mary’s hand and stroked her forehead. This girl was so young. She soothed Mary through the labour, desperate that they not be discovered. Mercifully the labour was short and the girl was brave. When the baby was born the innkeeper’s wife cleaned it and placed it on Mary’s breast, wrapped in the only thing she had – her own beautiful shawl – so that Mary could see and embrace her new son.
“What will you call him?” said the innkeeper’s wife, smiling.
“I will call him god saves,” said Mary. Because truly, tonight we have been saved, not by words or prophesies, but by your act of courage, kindness and love.
Mary looked at the baby – and even with her exhaustion, even through her pain, she smiled. She held the baby up to her husband. “See Joseph. It’s like I told you. An angel would come to help us in our time of need.”
The innkeeper’s wife stood nearby, exhausted herself, watching the couple. They had so little. They were still in grave danger. But they had such joy in their eyes – and love. She could not see her own face glowing as she watched Mary and baby, standing over them in the light of the lamp. She looked out into the night sky with the stars blazing and sparkling as if in song. And she saw the first glimmer of dawn on the distant horizon. “I must go,” she said. “The family will soon be up. But rest here. You will be safe.”
Joseph, aching and exhausted looked on in amazement. Mary was right. It was an angel that had saved them. He marvelled at this – this miracle of hope and salvation that he was witnessing on that dark and starry night some two thousand years ago. And he gave thanks.
Was this true? Unlikely. It sprung from my imagination. Does that matter?
No. Whether you believe this story or any other like it is not what really matters. What matters is that it could have been true – with the action of one brave, caring person.
And it could be true today if one person realizes one simple thing. Love is a verb.
Love isn’t found in our words or thoughts. It’s found in our actions. When we realize this, we can indeed make miracles happen. When we act on this – miracles happen before our eyes. Angels become real.
Angels become real every day. You can see them if you look. Not among those who bluster, or those who try to manipulate our fears for their own ego and gain. Not among those who will not act because of fear, ignorance or prejudice. You can see the angels if you look at those who are taking action. Even if they are fearful. Even with the realization that they can never do enough. Even against the opposition of those who try to get them to be “realistic”. Everyday angels are as real as you and me.
When you look for action. You’ll see angels. Not two thousand years ago, or in some story, but here today.
To all the angels out there. May you bring us to the miracle of love and hope again in this coming year. The need is great.