A Bright Night and a Dark Day
She was going. And that was the end of it. Joseph listed the reasons why she shouldn’t. “Elizabeth can help with the delivery if the baby comes before my return,” he said. “The trip will be grueling and dangerous,” he said.
Mary looked into his eyes, “Joseph, it’s settled. I am going with you—I will not be apart from you. The first face my baby sees will be yours.” And his resolve withered. Like dry grass in the fire, he was consumed, and then he began to prepare.
Some coins, some food, a wineskin, a few blankets, a borrowed donkey, and a sturdy staff: these were the provisions he gathered. And off they went.
The Romans mandated that the pair be counted as they passed under the Roman banner—along with everyone else in Judea. The census, held at various locations throughout the province, was ultimately for taxation purposes. It was inconvenient and unpopular. The townsmen grumbled to each other, and to their wives. But not Joseph. He did not add the stress of complaining to Mary’s burden. Instead, he said, “All will be well. Even these Gentiles will serve His purpose.” But their foreign tongue and arrogant ways provoked such deep distain—Mary had to lean on Joseph’s faith when emotion welled up inside her. It wasn’t right, these pagans in such a position of power over God’s anointed. Someday, that would change.
Joseph walked, and so did Mary, mostly, on the first day. But each ensuing day demanded more time on the back of the donkey. She rested atop the beast, but not entirely. Riding can be exhausting in its own way. By the third day, her back was on fire. Though she said she was fine, Joseph kept a slower pace. His concern for her was mostly adorable, and only occasionally annoying—when he inquired about her discomfort for the fifth time since breakfast!
Other travelers passed them along the road, and the way grew more congested near Bethlehem. Mary was so looking forward to arriving. A bed, a bath, and a hot meal, these sounded exquisite. But the growing throngs hinted at an unexpected dilemma. There was no available room! The town was jammed with visitors. The Roman authorities either didn’t consider the logistics of their decree, or they didn’t care. Either way, the tension on Joseph's face—and in his voice—grew as he inquired at place after place. The sun set, and with labored steps Joseph inquired again. The proprietor gave the same report: every room was taken. But then the older man noticed the donkey, and Mary. To his eyes, Mary looked impossibly young—and enormously pregnant. She looked as big as the full moon that filled the night sky. “The stable,” he said, “has room for the donkey, and you can claim a corner of the place for yourselves. It’s the best I can offer.” Joseph paused, looked at Mary’s exhausted smile, and accepted. The owner indicated there would be no charge, but Joseph insisted on paying for the donkey’s boarding. “Suit yourself,” the innkeeper said as he took two small coins from Joseph’s outstretched hand.
Joseph started a fire just outside of the stable entrance. Mary sat by its warmth as he went about finding clean straw and removing evidence of the previous tenants. Mary thought Joseph should get his coins back for cleaning the man’s stable! But she kept the thought to herself. Then she felt the first pain. Twinges, she had felt before, but this was different. She stifled a cry; her husband noticed her change in posture. He said nothing, having been wounded by her knit eyebrows at his earlier pestering. But when she could no longer refrain from crying out, Joseph pressed in. “Is it time?” He asked, eyes wide. “It’s time,” Mary replied between breaths. He hurried to arrange the blankets and led Mary to her nest. He gave her a ladle of water, held her hand, and wiped her face. The pains grew until there was no respite. As Mary entered transition, Joseph prepared to receive Mary’s son into the world. The baby crowned and he shouted with joy, “Soon now, Mary. Soon. Push.” And she did.
Joseph laughed heartily at the sight of the baby boy he held crying in the night. He did as he had been taught regarding umbilical cord and placenta. It was all so beautiful, he thought. He washed the boy and nestled him close to Mary’s breast, praising God as he did so. Mary delighted in her rooting son. So strong, he was, already. She wrapped him in swaddling, held the newborn tightly, and he slept. Mary had forgotten the pain the very moment she locked eyes with the baby’s beautiful face. Now, she couldn’t stop staring at him as he breathed and fussed. He was perfect.
Fatigue pulled at Mary’s drowsy eyes. As her head nodded, she startled and looked through the open doors of the stable into the night sky. The stars were magnificent. They looked closer, brighter—somehow more… interested. Mary chuckled at the thought. With the twinkling stars and radiant moon, she would never forget the scene that night. Her last thought before falling asleep was, “What a bright night.”
Joseph and Mary concluded their business and took their baby home. Adventures and visitations and wonders multiplied as the boy grew. The years passed. He learned the trade of his mother’s husband. Joseph imparted and was proud as Jesus grew into manhood. It gave him comfort to examine his apprentice’s workmanship—even as he did so with fading eyes.
But Jesus was more than a craftsman. He was wise. Mary marveled at the way he handled both people and knowledge. Others were drawn to him, this man who studied, and worshiped, and prayed, and worked with such joy. Mary wondered at what new thing he and his cousin were preparing in the name of God. And in due time, Jesus put his tools away, and began to work on the hearts and minds of men.
His first year as rabbi was pleasant and humble, with a small but faithful number of disciples. The second year was beyond comprehension. Sometimes, disturbingly so. The throngs pressed in. So many were so desperate. The sick, the tormented, the broken, the outcast: they came from near and far. And he cared for them, healed them, comforted them.
The priests noticed. They scoffed at him, they with their finery and titles. He pushed back, Jesus did. Blunt, but not unkind. He called them to higher ground. Some, a few, responded to his invitation. Most did not. They hated him because he was popular and confident and good—but mostly they hated him because he wasn’t one of them.
The tension increased, reaching a crescendo at Passover. What started with ridicule and slander hardened into overt violence. One of his closest disciples betrayed him. He was arrested at night and convicted on false charges supported by lies. The process was illegal and corrupt. It was astonishing that these men of the law so blatantly disregarded it.
They beat him and mocked him. Then, they gave him over to the very Romans they secretly hated. That’s when the real tortures began. The Romans were good at it. Scourged, mocked and beaten yet again—he was silent as they issued the stunning death decree.
It was surreal.
They forced the carpenter to carry a massive beam of wood to his place of execution—his final project this side of heaven. He barely lasted in his weakened state, arriving only with the help of another. Then, between two thieves, amidst blood and tears and vomit, the teacher was displayed.
And Mary was there.
Her son, her boy, her baby—she didn’t know she could feel such agony. The weight on her chest made every breath an ordeal, her legs buckled. And even when he could have justifiably withdrawn into his own torment, he didn’t. The son noticed the mother’s pain. Care for her, John, he said.
Then, he died; it was both a mercy and a curse. The skies drew dark, like creation itself travailed in shame. The ground shook below. Clouds writhed above. Deep inside, a part of Mary died, too.
It was a dark day.
The hours and days that followed were a blur for Mary. But on the third day following the execution, everything changed. All the promises and prophesies and hopes and questions were eclipsed by his Presence. He rose, and somehow, though the pain was not erased from Mary’s mind, everything was all right. A new Spirit wove the dark cords of her trauma into a new depth of understanding, and a new confidence in the God that had commissioned her whole life to be about that boy. And Mary was glad for all of it, even what she had to endure. She spent the rest of her life resting in his Message, giving away what he had given her—this Savior of the world.
In her mind, the dark day was relegated to a small space between that first bright night and the glory that followed. While Mary never stopped writing and singing her song, the latter verses reflected a depth that the earlier stanzas did not contain. Those verses were only for him; he alone would understand.
A bright night and a dark day. Two points in time that every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve must reconcile. Two points that form a line that divides, that asks a question:
Upon which side are you? (John 3:16-21)
To all my readers, a very Merry Christmas 2019,