Encountering the Divine

I smile at a passerby; by his clothes and demeanor, he must be a merchant.  He stares, fingering his money satchel for a brief moment, deliberating, before moving on.  The city has been busy lately, and we’ve had a lot of people passing through.  Business has been good.

Someone grabs my shoulder; I gasp and spin around.  I need to be more careful sometimes.  Not that it’s a luxury I can afford.  However, instead of a large man with grubby hands, I see Samuel.  He’s something of an old friend, if someone like me can have friends.  Abashed, he started to stutter out an apology, but I cut him short.

“Sorry, I’m just a bit jumpy.  You on your way to the fields?”  He’s carrying a young lamb in one hand and his staff in the other.  I’m stating the obvious, but it’s the best I can do to diffuse the awkward atmosphere.

“Yeah, I was just heading out.  You, um,” his eyes dart around, “You’re going to work, too?”  He doesn’t wait for a reply.  “Well, uh, be safe, OK?” he nervously adds, as he turns around, waving over his shoulder.

Flustered, I shout after him, “You too,” and more softly, “good night.” 

I turn around and continue towards my destination and my partner for the night, Steven.  I don’t mind him so much as the others.  He was very in love with his wife, and it was years after her passing before he even thought to see us.  Only 20 and a few years older than me, he probably could find another wife, but I think the loss was just too great.  I delivered the stillborn the night she died.  That was back before I switched jobs for the extra income.  Now he asks for me when he has the money, and I help him the best I can.   He helps me the best he can, too.  It’s not unusual for me to come back with a little extra food from his kitchen to share with my daughter.

I go through the alley connecting to the back of his inn.  Sneaking around doesn’t suit me, but when I took this job swearing to provide for my little girl, I set my pride aside.  He has a respectable business to run, after all.

“I’m sorry, I really am.  There really isn’t enough room.”  I hear his apologetic voice from around the corner.  I stop just before coming into view.  From the looks of it, the man he’s speaking to had been traveling for quite some time.  I continued watching and didn’t even notice the woman behind him until he started raising his voice in desperation and pointing to her.

“But my wif…my betro….she…she’s pregnant.  We need a place to stay.  Please.  Don’t you have an extra bed?  Just give one to her.  I can sleep outside or something.  Please, just…just…don’t leave her in the cold.”

The man is urgent, and I can see why.  His companion is pregnant.  She gasps and clutches her rounded belly.  I’ve seen that look many times before.  That woman is very close to giving birth. Judging by her age and the age of the man with her, they probably don’t know just how close she is.

They continue talking, and then I see the couple turn away, perhaps to try the last few inns down the street.  I try to forget the incident, quickly combing my hair, being careful not to let it snag on my gold earrings.  I feel sorry for the couple, but I have troubles of my own and mouths to feed.  Might as well look presentable.

I come into view just as Steven is about to close the door.

“You heard that, didn’t you?”  I nod in assent.

“How long do you think until she gives birth?”

His question surprises me.  We hardly make reference to my old life anymore; it brings up old wounds for the both of us.  I’m prepared to conclude our business for the night, but clearly he has other concerns on his mind.  I answer as best I can.

“Maybe a day at the most.  Maybe a few hours.  It’s hard to tell without actually touching her.”

“He reminds me of myself,” he whispers, partly to me and partly to no one in particular.   “Sorry, give me a sec,” he continues, half-turning to me, and half-turning to run out the door.  I’m not sure what he plans to do exactly, but I make myself comfortable inside and wait for him to return.

He finally comes back, but he’s running around and grabbing supplies.  “Towels.  We need towels.  And a basin.  And water.  Herbs.  I don’t know if we have it, but what do you need?”  He looks right at me in earnest.

“Wait, what?  What’s going on?”  After I second, I recognize the tools of my old trade.  “No, no, I can’t.  I haven’t in ages.  That was a long time ago.”  The people I work with aren’t exactly happy to give birth.  I can’t say that I haven’t bent to their wishes on occasion.  “What about Martha?”  The town’s midwife would be a much better choice.

“Her husband’s from Bethel, remember?  They’re long gone by now.”  In my head I curse the census and the Empire.  I also wonder if I’m going to get paid tonight.

“Hurry!”  Steven shoves a pile of blankets into my arms and pulls me out the door.  I have no choice but to follow him, but I realize I don’t know where we’re going.  Before I can ask, Steven shouts over his shoulder, “Remember Old Man Zach?  I convinced him to lend his stable.  Well, I had to pay for it.”  With all the rushing and the running, I must have heard him wrong.  A stable?  Who would give birth in a…

We reach the stable, and sure enough, the couple is inside.  The woman’s is screaming in pain.  We got there just in time.  I take a deep breath to compose myself.  I will be this woman’s midwife tonight, whether I like it or not. There’s no other choice.  I regain my senses, and my constitution grows stronger.  Old habits come back into place.

“Get him out of here!” I snap at Steven, pointing to the woman’s husband.  Or was he her betrothed?  I can’t quite remember from his conversation with Steven, but I don’t have time to linger on it.  I hurriedly spread the blankets on the floor.  What a horrid place to deliver a baby.  She shrieks again.  I remember that I’m not the only person on the planet.  No, what a horrid place to give birth.

I start to massage her.  “Breathe.  Breathe.  What’s your name?”  I try to calm her down.  “I need you to remain calm.  Keep breathing for me, OK?”

“Mary,” she replies, between gasps.

“You’re doing great, Mary.  My friend’s name is Mary.  We call her Magdeline.  Mag for short.  She’s around your age, too.”  I make pointless smalltalk.  She nods.  Good, the distraction works, at least for awhile.  Poor girl, she’s giving birth to her first child, and it has to be like this.  Then pain replaces the fear in her eyes.

The next few hours are a blur.  Screaming.  Breathing.  Sweating.  And finally, the smell of blood.  Mary’s cries cease, and another one pierces the air.  “It’s a boy.”

“I know,” she whispers with her eyes closed.  She’s at peace. 

I hold the baby to clean him off, but as I do, I hear a great shout from far off, maybe from the fields.  Or maybe I don’t.  My senses are confused, and all I know is that I am afraid.  I almost drop him because when I touch the baby, I am filled with a sense of guilt.  Who am I to deliver this baby?  These hands…I don’t deserve to hold him.  I feel so dirty, so shameful.  Tears stream down my face, but I don’t know why.  It doesn’t make sense.  I don’t like this feeling, so I hurry to put the baby in his mother’s arms.

She looks up with a smile.  “Joseph, God is with us.”  Steven and the man, apparently Joseph, stand at the mouth of the stable.  I don’t know how long they have been there.  Joseph rushes up to Mary and the baby.

“Thank you,” she says.  Still emotional, I reply, “Mary, you have been favored by God.”  I don’t know why I said that, but it just felt right.  Steven and I take our leave.

Not a word is exchanged between us.  I’m still crying, but I try not to show it.  “You hear that?” he asks.  Footsteps.  A lot of them, and coming closer.  Who are these people?  Their faces come into view, and I pick one out.

“Sam?  Sam!  What’s going on?” I ask, as he almost rushes past.

“Angels!  Shouting!  God!”  He’s excited and out of breath.  Maybe even delusional.

“Slow down.  What happened?  Why aren’t you in the fields?”  It’s Steven’s turn to ask the questions.

Sam then tells us how he and his friends were tending the sheep when they heard a great shout and angels approached them.  He describes the brilliance that filled the sky and the fear that filled their hearts.  I nod.  That must have been what I heard.  And the fear?  I felt that, too.

But he smiles.  “It’s the Messiah.  Peace on earth and goodwill to men. That’s what they said.  We’re going to see him.”  He looks around; the others have already gone ahead.  “Well, they’re probably seeing him now.  I should go join them.  Tell the others!”  With that, he runs off to the stable we just left.

The Messiah?  Peace?  It sounds fantastical.  Is that what Mary meant when she said “God is with us?”  God is with us in Israel?  In Bethlehem?  In a stable?  I don’t understand any of it, but I allow myself to hope.  Maybe that child really will grow up to be the Messiah.  Who knows?  What I do know, is that the more I ponder the mystery, the more fear gives way to a peace I cannot explain.

We reach the inn.  Quietly, we sit down, facing one another.  After a few minutes, Steven breaks the silence.  “That was really something, huh?” he asks, pensively.  He fumbles through his belongings, and takes me by the hand.  “I need to tell the patrons about what happened tonight, but don’t you have a little girl to take care of?”  I feel the coins he presses into my palm.  I hesitate, but he smiles and leaves the room to start down the hall and knock on people’s doors.

“Thank you,” I reply, and I let myself out the front door.