By Bob Libby
The widow Anne supported herself and her daughter, Mary, by running, what we would call today, a boarding house in Nazareth. The house had been built by her late husband, Samuel. He was a stone mason who traced his family trade back more than a thousand years to Solomon’s temple. Samuel had dreams of a large family and had added on to his father’s house. But Samuel had lost his life in a rock slide and left Anne with only one little girl.
Joseph the carpenter, along with his wife Sarah and son James, were welcome tenants. Joseph came from Bethlehem and was employed in the construction of the expanding Roman imperial city of Sepphoris, just a few miles down the hill from Nazareth.
The two families got along well. Anne and Sarah prepared the meals together and Mary became a big sister and playmate for little James.
But things did not go well for Sarah. She began losing weight and was in constant discomfort, if not outright pain. The best a physician could do was give her something to ease the pain. Anne gave her nursing care and comfort and Mary took over with James. They all prayed for relief, but none came and Sarah’s dead body was laid to rest in a garden on the edge of the village.
Joseph was devastated by the loss of his wife, but managed, in an almost comatose state, to conduct his construction projects in Sepphoris. Anne, while grieving for her friend, provided the household with stability and Mary graduated from big sister to surrogate mother for young James.
As Mary’s body approached puberty, she became something of a dreamer, which her mother attributed to mood swings. But it was deeper than that. The loss of her father and then James’s mother made her acutely aware of the fragility of life and the certainty of death.
Anne had taught Mary to pray, and when Rabbi gathered the village boys for their lessons, she hid in a corner and absorbed the Scripture stories and especially the account of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, his son. Why would a father think such a thing if Abraham was God’s friend? she pondered. But who could she ask?
When the time of mourning had passed, Joseph indicated that on his next visit to Bethlehem he would be looking for a new wife.
“Why go so far?” asked Anne.
“You mean you’d be willing?”
“Oh no,” said Anne. “If the truth be known, I’m past the childbearing time of my life. Yes, I can be a good companion, if you know what I mean, and I can run a good house, but James needs brothers and sisters. I couldn’t give you those. But…”
“But what? But who?” asked Joseph.
“Mary? But she’s just a girl.”
“Not anymore. She’s not a girl anymore. She’s a woman now,” said Anne. “I can swear to that.”
Joseph said nothing. He just stared at Anne, considering what she had just said.
Anne continued: “Mary has already become a mother to James, and James loves Mary … and in time you will love her too.”
“But I already do,” declared Joseph as he put his arms around Anne.
The betrothal of Mary and Joseph was a community event according to the Torah (Gen. 24) and Hebrew tradition (Judges 14:2-7). The betrothal bound the couple together for a year as husband and wife in every sense except in the bedroom. Anne’s cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah came up from the hill country of Judaea, while Joseph’s relatives ventured from Bethlehem. There was much rejoicing. The wine was good, and happiest of all was little James. “Now you belong to me,” he slobbered as he hugged his new stepmother.
Joseph, too, was a happy man and hovered over his young wife-to-be with a great smile on his face. Mary, in turn, hummed old tunes and lullabies when she put James down for the night. This ritual was followed by her returning to the dining area, sitting in a corner, and continuing to hum and sing softly. Joseph called her “My bride, the Dreamer.”
One evening after supper Mary broke off from her music and asked, “Who is Gabriel?”
“He’s one of God’s angels,” Joseph said.
“Rabbi says he’s one of God’s top angels,” offered James.
“And he’s God’s messengers,” added Anne.
“Why do you ask?” queried Joseph.
Mary just smiled (Luke 1:26-38).
As days turned to weeks and weeks into months, Mary became more and more remote. While she minded James and did her chores, she said little and became more and more the dreamer.
“What’s going on?” asked Anne, “You seem so far away. A mother can tell. Is something wrong? Are you all right.” Mary, with her hands folded in her lap, simply responded with a smile. But one evening when Joseph had taken James out for a walk, Mary sat down next to her mother.
“Mother? When you said I had become a woman and I was scared when the blood began, you told me not to be afraid — that’s that the way it is with women and that it would happen every cycle of the moon.” Anne put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and nodded agreement. Then Mary continued, “Well, Mother, it’s been almost two cycles of the moon since that happened again.”
• • •
Anne confronted Joseph. “How could you do such a thing? Why couldn’t you have waited out the year of your betrothal?
Joseph was in shock. A mixture of anger, disbelief, and sorrow surged through his body. “I never touched her,” he insisted.
“But she never left the house alone,” countered Anne.
The two backed off from their adversarial stance and probed the edges of the great mystery. There had been a drunken Roman mercenary who had staggered into the village the previous month looking for a woman to satisfy his needs, but he had been dealt quick justice by stoning. “No,” allowed Anne. I hid Mary and James in the back of the house and …” she hesitated a moment and then confessed, “I threw one of the stones.”
Then Anne remembered Mary’s dream about the Angel Gabriel telling her that God wanted her to bring his son into the world. “But that was just a dream.” She said.” Just a lovely dream. It couldn’t possibly be true.”
But the truth of the matter was that Mary was pregnant. What to do? Joseph suggested consulting Rabbi, but Anne screamed a defiant, “No! He’ll simply quote the Torah, and the tradition allows an adulterous wife to be accused publicly and stoned to death.”
“Oh my God,” cried Joseph. “Not my little Mary.”
Then Joseph, being a kind and just man, decided to put Mary away privately and take her to the home of her cousin, Elizabeth, and her husband, Zechariah, in the hill country of Judaea, not too far from Bethlehem (Matt. 1:19).
To say that Elizabeth was “great with child” was an understatement. Her pregnancy at her advanced age was the talk of her little hamlet and the surrounding hill country.
But a weary and slightly nauseated Mary hardly noticed Elizabeth’s condition.
When Elizabeth welcomed her young cousin, she pressed Mary’s body firmly against her bulging body and the yet to be born John the Baptist did flip flops in his mother’s belly. (Luke 1:39-41).
When Elizabeth put Mary down for a nap, she and Zechariah sat down with Joseph and heard his story.
“Of course she can stay here as long as necessary. But something else is going on here. I wish Zechariah could tell you himself, but he has been speechless since, as a Levite, a descendant of Aaron, he was taking his turn and tending the incense in the Temple. He had a dream or a vision in which the Angel Gabriel told him that my barren body would produce a son who would, like Elijah of old, prepare the way of God’s Messiah” (Luke 1:18-21).
Zechariah, although speechless, was totally engaged in the conversation by nodding his head in agreement.
Joseph’s return to Nazareth was greeted by a happy son and a concerned soon-to-be grandmother. “Is she all right?” queried Anne.
“Oh, physically she is well. She doesn’t say much. I don’t know what’s she’s thinking,” replied Joseph. There’s a dreamy look about her, like she’s in another world.”
“What about Elizabeth and Zechariah? Can she stay with them? Can she have the baby there?”
“Oh yes, they will care for her through the pregnancy.”
“And then what?” What happens to the baby?”
“That remains to be seen,” said Joseph. “For some reason Zechariah has lost his voice. He just shrugs his shoulder and smiles. Elizabeth is pregnant, you know, She is sure Mary’s baby is a boy, a very special little boy, and that God will take care of things and her own little boy will have a little cousin.”
Joseph divided his time between his construction projects down in the valley and tried to keep a cheerful countenance in the presence of his son, James. But Joseph’s sleep was restless and Anne was sensitive to his troubled spirit. When they shared a meal they spoke of all sorts of things, but not about Mary.
Then one morning at breakfast Anne noticed a difference. “You look like you had a good night’s sleep,” she said, but it was really a question.
Joseph nodded agreement, but didn’t explain. He had work to do, but after the evening meal when James had been tucked in, after hearing his favorite story about David and Goliath, Joseph sat down with Anne.
“Yes, I had a good night’s sleep, but I also had a very vivid dream about Gabriel. He said he had spoken to Mary and now he wanted to speak to me. He told me not to be afraid, that Mary was still a virgin, that God wanted Mary to carry and give birth to his son, who would change the world.” Joseph paused, looked at Anne, put his face in his hands and wept. “I wish I could believe that, and maybe I will, but I’m not afraid anymore” (Matt. 1:20-21).
The mother in Anne reached out to her son-in-law and held him in her arms, and the two of them cried together.
Joseph couldn’t wait for his next quarterly trip to Bethlehem to head south and see Mary. When he approached the entrance to the little village in the hill country, outside Jerusalem, he saw Zechariah waving his arms, shouting, “Alleluia,” and telling his friends, “It’s a boy, just as God promised. His name is John! Imagine that. At my age I’m the father of a manchild. He’s going to be a prophet. We haven’t had a prophet in hundreds of years. And not only that, he’s going to prepare us for the coming of God’s anointed, the Messiah” (Luke 1:68-79).
Joseph joined the elders of the village in congratulating Zechariah. Then, on the way to see Elizabeth and her newborn, the two men exchanged their stories.
“Where’s Mary?” demanded Joseph.
“She’s resting. But she’s afraid to see you. She doesn’t know what you are going to say or what you’re going to do,” replied Elizabeth, holding her newborn son in one arm and stroking Joseph’s shoulder with her free hand.
“Ask her to come out. She is my betrothed and I love her. I’ve come to take her home.”
Mary appeared in the doorway. Joseph’s voice quivered as he called out to her, “Mary … Mary.” As he embraced her he whispered, “Mary… Mary. It’s going to be all right. I love you and I want to take you home to Nazareth.” He paused and then added, “Gabriel spoke to me. Zechariah also had a vision about baby John and our son. I don’t totally understand what is going on. Zechariah says God is doing something he has never done before and I believe him.”
They left the next day at first light. Elizabeth gave them an ample supply of food, including several bunches of ripe figs, which Mary craved at odd hours of the night.
Joseph’s fondest memory of the journey was that Mary sang almost all the way home. “My soul magnifies the Lord … and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46 -55).
• • •
Nehemiah’s family had owned the Bethlehem Inn for several centuries, going back to the time of Judas Maccabeus and the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem. Nehemiah and Joseph had grown up together, studied together and made their bar mitzvah under the same rabbi. Nehemiah was embarrassed when he told his old friend and frequent lodger that every room was taken and that Roman mercenaries were camped out in the courtyard.
“I’ve never seen so many people in Bethlehem. It’s all due to Caesar Augustus and his damn census. You know why he’s doing it, counting all the people in his empire. After the census, he’ll raise the taxes. The Lord knows, we’re already paying too many taxes.” Then Nehemiah mentioned a shepherd’s cottage on the other side of King David’s pasture, but Joseph said they needed someplace … right away. “Mary is already in labor” (Luke 2:1-5).
Nehemiah noted that, in spite of the late hour, it was a very bright night, as he led Mary on her donkey around to the cave behind the inn where several animals were sleeping. Nehemiah offered to summons Martha the midwife, but it was too late. Mary’s water broke as she lay down on a mattress of straw that Joseph covered with his cloak. As Mary gave birth, Joseph caught the baby’s little body. “It’s a manchild, Mary. It’s a boy. Oh, thank God,” he shouted (Luke 2:5-7).
A shepherd and his sons heard Joseph’s laughter and came to see what was going on. A gentle breeze moved through the trees, serenading the newborn with a gentle lullaby. Dancing clouds joined the celebration while a cluster of stars sparkled brightly (Luke 2:8-21).
Martha the midwife bustled in with a basket of supplies and took over. “This is no place for a new mother and her firstborn,” Martha said as she cleaned up Mary and her baby. “I’ll be back in the morning and take you over to my house. A shepherd’s wife gave birth two days ago and is ready to go home.” Then, turning to Joseph, she ordered, “Bring that soiled cloak of yours and I’ll see that it gets washed.”
It was several nights later when strange men, wearing strange costumes and speaking strange languages, appeared outside Martha’s little cottage and woke Joseph and Mary from their fitful slumber. Under the light of bright stars they did their best to communicate with the new parents and finally, after leaving a large sack of gifts, bid their goodbyes and disappeared into the night (Matt. 2:1-12).
It was before sunrise when Nehemiah shook Joseph’s shoulder. “You’ve got to get out of here. King Herod has gone stark raving mad, and all Jerusalem with him. Somewhere he got the idea that a new king had been born here in Bethlehem, the ancestral city of King David. Herod sent a messenger to the soldiers sleeping in my lobby. They have been ordered to find all the baby boys in Bethlehem and bash their heads in” (Matt. 2:13-15 ).
It was early morning when a tired and hungry Joseph, Mary, and Jesus arrived at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah.
“You need to get as far away from King Herod as possible,” Zechariah said. “When he thinks his power is threatened he’ll even kill members of his own family.”
Zechariah suggested that Egypt might be a good place to take refuge. There was a large Hebrew community in Alexandria, and Zechariah knew a rabbi there who would give them shelter.
But before they left, Zechariah, as a priest of the Abijah order, took the baby Jesus and his parents into the Temple, where Jesus was circumcised and Mary and Joseph purchased two small doves for their thanksgiving offering (Luke 2:21).
Zechariah, assuming his priestly role, said, “Name this child.”
“His name is Jesus,” Mary and Joseph said in unison.
As Zechariah was performing the bris, and the baby screamed his displeasure, Mary asked, “Why are we doing this?”
“Since the time of our father Abraham it has been done to mark us as children of our Yahweh’s covenant with the Hebrew people,” Zechariah said. And then he added with a smile, “If the truth be told, at a man’s humblest and most exalted moments, he is reminded that he is a child of God, the Almighty King of the universe.”
Standing, not too far away, were two ancient homeless creatures who, like the little birds, had nested in the dark corners of the Temple.
Old Simeon begged to touch and comfort the wounded baby Jesus and then declared that he was ready to die because he had seen YHWH’s promised one. The widow Anna smiled, giggled, and nodded her agreement with Simeon (Luke 2:25-38).
In Alexandria, where the River Nile flows into the Mediterranean Sea, they located Rabbi Philo. He was an attractive man who taught in the rabbinical school at the synagogue in the Jewish quarter of the great Egyptian city on the Mediterranean.
Joseph and Mary were not prepared for the size and scope of the Egyptian Hebrew community, and the synagogue was huge. It appeared to be as large, if not larger, than the Temple in Jerusalem.
They were not the first or last Palestinian Jews to seek refuge from Herod’s kingdom and Roman abuse. They found Rabbi Philo, surrounded by young rabbinical students, as he was concluding his morning lecture.
“So in conclusion, if the truth be told, all the evidence points to the fact that YHWH did not give the Torah just to the Hebrews. He gave it to us through Moses and we are to take it to the whole world.”
“When will this happen?” a student asked. “How will this happen?”
“I can’t answer that,” Philo said. “But when Messiah comes, we will know.”
The Rev. Bob Libby, a priest of the Diocese of Southeastern Florida, is the author of five books, including Grace Happens and The Forgiveness Book.
Image: “St Joseph with the Infant Jesus” by Guido Reni, via Wikimedia Commons