Updated: January 30, 2023
by Louis Templeman
Luke 2: 4, “And Joseph, too, went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David to be enrolled with his Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. There was no room for them in the inn.”
Six months after Mary returned from Elizabeth’s home in Judea Joseph was traveling with his very pregnant wife to participate in the Roman census and to pay his taxes. He believed Mary’s story. He believed an angel visited her. That her child was miraculously conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. That this child was the Messiah.
He heard from Mary the amazing story of Elizabeth’s husband being visited by the angel Gabriel. That he was made mute because of his unbelief. That he regained his speech the day his son was circumcised when he validated his wife’s demand that the boy be called John, even as the angel commanded him.
He remembered his own dream. Now he was facing the second great crisis of his faith. The day they arrived in Bethlehem Mary went into labor. Now Joseph had proven he was a good son of Israel, Son of David. He had begun to prove he would be a good husband. Now he was becoming a father. His first task would be to find a place for his wife to deliver the child.
Bethlehem was small. He went to the inn. Perhaps there was only one. If there was more we can be sure he knocked on every door. His request was pitiful and frantic yet full of resolve, “I desperately need a room. My wife and I. We are from Galilee. She is pregnant. She is in labor!”
He must have been turned away many times hearing such as: “Yeah, you and everyone else. . . . Those stupid Romans and their decrees, we cannot handle such crowds! . . . I’m sorry we have no room. . . . . Tough luck. Try down the road.”
Finally, Joseph knowing he has God’s call to care for and protect the Messiah and his mother began to demand, “Look, any place out of the weather. I must have a place now.” He was painfully aware of Mary in the throes of labor. Who knows if she was still on the donkey, if they had one, or seeking to ease her discomfort on the bare earth, in the midst of the crowded lanes?
Her water may have already broken. Jesus was coming soon. He would make his first sounds, take his first breath of air, have his fingers and toes counted and suckle at Mary’s breast. Joseph was surely ready to take someone by the collar and state in no uncertain terms, “I must have a place, out of the weather. Any place. I’ll pay you what it is worth.”
Finally he heard, “I have a grotto, a small natural cave with a roof and three walls where I keep my donkey and a few cattle.” Joseph sighed, “I’ll take it.” What a misery that must have been for Joseph. His first task as father would reveal his son being born in a “barn”.
He hurriedly found the grotto and cleaned it as quickly as he could. If he had access to clean hay he spread it for a pallet and covered it with their clothing for Mary to deliver her child. If a midwife was available I am sure he retained her services. Joseph found he had little assistance to offer once he had secured the barn and cleaned a corner of it.
He hovered about anxiously, probably outside under the stars giving Mary and the mid-wife privacy and modesty in which to do their work. I imagine he felt guilty as he enjoyed the fresh air outside away from the smell of animals with their waste and urine. This would be the odor that would attend his son’s first breath. This would be the smell imbued in Mary’s memory of her child’s birth. The deep breaths and panting often associated with childbirth.
Did Joseph look up into the heavens and moan? “O God of the universe, forgive me, it was the best I could do.” Did he wonder at God’s plan? Could not God, who sent this child, have made a better place available? Joseph was experiencing the sorrow which provides the spiritual mortar that holds God’s house together. He was a pilgrim, unsure of his future, yet faithful in his struggles.