Disclaimer - This is a work of fiction, loosely built around a fusing of Biblical and other accounts from various branches of Christian tradition. I have neither the intention nor the desire to disrespect any elements of anyone's faith, and if you feel that you may be offended or upset by divergence from what you hold to be true, please do not read on.
Mary, the child whom I am betrothed to marry, came to my workshop in the heat of the day and said to me, “My cousin Elizabeth came to see me yesterday, Joseph.”
“What did she want?” I asked.
“She wanted nothing. She came with some wonderful news. She and Zechariah are expecting a baby.”
“Well, good for them. At their age, too. I didn’t know the old man had it in him still; and I thought she was barren.”
“As did we all, Joseph. I know that they have both been begging God for a son, to prevent the priestly line from ending with Zechariah. It must be that the Lord God heard their prayers and looked on them with favour. Elizabeth says that her husband was visited by an angel who told him that Elizabeth would have a son to be called John; a son who would have an important job to do for God, preparing the way for His chosen. They have both said nothing about this to anyone, although she has been carrying for five months now.”
Barely a month later, Mary came to me and said that an angel had appeared to her in the night and told her that she, too, was to have a baby.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “How can you have a baby when we are not married and have never lain together?”
“I don’t know, Joseph,” Mary replied, “I only know what the angel told me. He said that the Holy Ghost would come upon me and the power of God would give me a son. He would be called the son of God, and I have to name him Jesus.”
“And you believed that? You believed that the Lord High God would send one of his angels to a lowly house in Nazareth, of all places, and make a peasant girl, barely out of her childhood, the mother of His son? And did this ‘angel’ you speak of lie with you?”
“No, Joseph, no. I don’t know how to describe it — the angel was not a physical presence; he looked like a man, but made of bright light. I could almost see the wall of my chamber through him. But he didn’t touch me. He didn’t.”
“So somehow, without touching you, he claims to have managed to make you with child. How could that be?”
“It is a mystery to me, too, Joseph. But the feeling of calm, of serenity, of peace that I experienced at his words made me believe that he was as he said he was; a messenger from on high.”
“We shall see what happens,” I said. “If you don’t have your unclean time, then we shall know that what you say is true. When is your time expected?”
“Joseph! We do not speak of such things. You are not even supposed to know about them.”
“I am not a youth, Mary; I know of these things. When?” I asked.
“After the next Sabbath,” she replied.
Three Sabbaths later, Mary told me that her unclean time had still not come upon her, and that she believed herself to be with child.
“And yet you still say that no man has touched you?” I asked again.
“You must believe me, Joseph. No man has touched me and I want no man to touch me before we are joined.”
“I want to believe you, Mary, because I am sure you are an honest child, but I cannot,” I said. “I fear that you have wronged me, and that our marriage cannot proceed. I worry, too, that when your condition begins to show, there will be talk in Nazareth and it will be difficult for you to show yourself in public. You should go and spend some time with Zechariah and Elizabeth, while I consider what is to be done here.”
“What shall I say to my parents?” she asked.
“Tell them merely that you wish to be with your cousin to help her in her confinement. Your parents are good people; they will understand.”
And so Mary went to spend time with her cousin. She was there for about three months, until Elizabeth’s time came, and she gave birth to a son, whom they called John, as instructed by God’s messenger.
During the time Mary was staying with her cousin, God spoke to me in a dream, through one of His angels. In it, He told me that the child that Mary was carrying was placed there by the Holy Ghost and that he would save God’s people from their sins. He said that Mary was still pure, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to marry her.
Emboldened by that vision, I started to prepare a room for the baby. There was much to be done. If this child were to be of enough importance for the Lord Himself to speak to me and to Mary about him, I should make sure that he had everything he could need. I already had a lot of work to do; my carpentry business was thriving, even under the Romans – especially under the Romans, as they liked to have many fine trinkets, vessels and furnishings, as well as yokes for the oxen and ploughs for the oxen to pull – but I had to spend as much time as I could spare to make the perfect crib, a crib fit for the Lord’s chosen.
By the time Mary returned, I had completed the furnishings and things that I had purposed to make for the child, and was occupying myself with more orders from the Centurion and his men. Mary was very obviously with child, and there was no possibility of hiding it. The first time we went out together, many Nazarenes shouted after us, calling us names and making accusations because they believed that we had lain together though not yet wed. I knew they wouldn’t believe me if I told them the truth, so I said nothing in response. They all took this as an admission of guilt, even Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents; but I still couldn’t bring myself to explain what really happened, even to them. I would have loved to have been able to tell them all what I knew, but after the Rabbi’s outburst – he accused me of blasphemy when I told him – I decided that silence would serve me, if not better, at least less ill.
Mary and I didn’t go out much after that. Business fell off; no-one wanted to do business with someone like me; and as Mary’s time approached, we were having a lot of difficulties in our day-to-day lives.
One afternoon, as I returned from the marketplace, where I had gone to buy some bread, I saw a proclamation on the temple wall. When I arrived at my home, I said to Mary, “There is to be a census for the purposes of collecting taxes. Every adult male has to return to the city of his family roots to be counted and taxed. I am of the line of David, of Judea, and so I shall have to return to Bethlehem.”
“Are you sure of this?” she asked.
“I read it on a proclamation in the marketplace,” I replied. “You should remain here, Mary. It is a long way for you to travel at this time. I would prefer to stay with you, but the Romans never take kindly to their edicts being ignored.”
Mary said, “I refuse to remain at home while you travel. Where you go, I go.”
And so we set off together. The journey from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea took eight days. I couldn’t expect Mary to walk for all that time, so I made use of the donkey that normally pulls the cart carrying the fruits of my labours. Mary spent some of the time in the cart, some on the beast’s back. I walked alongside.
The people of Judea had spread far and wide in the Roman world, and all of them had to come to Bethlehem for this census. By the time we arrived, the whole city was full. We went to the area where my nearest family were, to see if they had a free room we could use, but found that all of their rooms were occupied, and that the only place available for us was in the store under the house, where the animals spent the night. We were there for a few weeks, waiting to be recorded and counted, and to find out how much tax we should pay. Before our turn came to present ourselves, Mary’s time came.
I had already purposed to remain in Bethlehem, hoping to be able to exercise my profession. I knew that life would be intolerable back in Nazareth as we’d never be able to escape the stigma that had already attached to us as a result of this child. Who would believe that Mary was still pure, yet had born a child? I had crafted some objects as examples of my work using tools borrowed from family members, hoping to elicit some orders so that I could provide for my young family. One of these was a manger into which I had placed a solid base, which we were able to use as a makeshift crib for the infant when he appeared.
Apart from the less-than-perfect location, there was little exceptional about the boy’s arrival. Mary coped well with the birth pains and rested while I wrapped the child and laid him in his crib. It wasn’t until a few hours later, when some shepherds came in from the hills saying they had been told in a vision that their long-awaited saviour had been born, that it really came home to me what a significant event this was.
I did some work in the basement and made it into a tolerable home for us, for a while at least. Over the course of the months that followed, a number of people visited, just wanting to have a glimpse of the one they called their Messiah. One evening, three men of science, astrologers as I recall, arrived saying they had seen propitious events foretold in the stars and that these events centred on our child (I knew I wasn’t his father, but I still thought of him as mine). They brought gifts fit for him as they felt they were guided.
“I bring gold,” said the first, “for the child is destined to be a great king.”
“The child is a god,” said the second, “it is right that I should offer him incense.”
The third said, “It is written in the stars that this child is to die for many. My offering is myrrh, to prepare Him for burial.”
Strange gifts to bring a new-born, but they claimed prophetic significance for them. I was never sure about astrology; I wasn’t convinced that God would announce His will by the positions of stars and planets.
The three men had journeyed far, from the east, to find the child and had been asking around before they located us. Word had reached King Herod (Rome’s puppet tyrant), that wise men were seeking a new king who had been born in Judea. I had another visit from an angel in a dream.
“Herod is frustrated in his attempts to locate the infant Jesus,” he said, “and has purposed to slaughter every male child born in Judea during the previous two years.” Jesus was about eighteen months old at the time, so was at great risk.
In the dream, the angel said, “Take Mary and the child and escape to Egypt. He will be safe there, and I will return to tell you when it is safe for you to return.”
I remember thinking at the time that so much of this paralleled what had happened to Moses in his early years; I had only recently been studying that part of the Torah; and I wasn’t sure whether the dream that I had was something to do with that. However, the dreams or visions that both Mary and I had previously experienced suggested that this was probably not my old mind playing tricks on me. Anyway, if it were true and I ignored it, the result would be most unpleasant. If, on the other hand, I followed it and it weren’t true, little harm would have been done.
So we bade farewell to our friends and family, attached the cart to the donkey and set off for Egypt.
And so began another adventure.