“Marah, quickly. Guests will start arriving as early as tonight. We must be ready.”
I stumble down the steps carrying an armload of sheets. “Mama, I am moving quickly,” I say, muffled by the pile of cloth. “It’s not my fault Papa asked me to carry all these at once!”
“Watch now,” my sister grunts, squeezing past me in the narrow staircase. “Why are you in the–!”
“Must you?” I huff as I nearly miss the last step. Everyone in my family has been on edge for the past few days. Well, I suppose it has been ever since Caesar called for all the world to be taxed. I mean, who has that kind of power, and why did they give it to him?
On one hand, it is great for business. My father was giddy the day he found out. So many people have left Bethlehem and started their own lives elsewhere; so many people will surely return. We will be at maximum capacity, my father has already proclaimed: busier than we have been in years. People just don’t travel; and when they do, they certainly don’t come to Bethlehem.
But on the other hand, we are already pulling our hair out and guests haven’t even arrived. As soon as Caesar made the decree, we began shuffling furniture and rounding up all the extra bedding we could find. My four sisters and brothers and I will all sleep together; and may even end up sleeping in the same room as my parents if we get that full. My brothers began making extra cots, and my sisters and I stitched up holey blankets and fraying pillows. My parents were already estimating how much money we would make and what we would do with it.
My mother was wrong. Guests begin arriving that afternoon rather than that night. The other inns fill up as well as the days pass. That entire week is wild with money, furniture, bodies, and loud nonstop chatter. My family and I barely have time to eat, and can hardly rest for all the clamor. Every room is filled, and, yes, my siblings and I all end up squishing into my parents room to make space for more guests.
Later that week, on a night like any other, I watch Papa count the money we made that day. My eyes are sliding closed when another knock comes at the door. “No vacancy!” my father yells. There is no response, except another firm knock on the door. I roll my eyes. We are the last inn on the block, so the desperate ones usually come to us.
My father heaves a sigh and carefully puts the money into the drawer. He’s locking it when the knock comes again. “I said there’s no vacancy,” he half shouts half grunts as he swings open the door.
I peek around him from my post by the desk, and I feel a nudge at my heart. We usually don’t pay much attention to the stories we hear from customers; most will say anything to get a better rate. But this family doesn’t have to say a word to tell me their story.
It’s a young man and his wife, who is great with child. They both are dirty and obviously weary. The wife seems to be holding onto her round belly, and the donkey she rides, for dear life; and the man looks as though he is ready to collapse. They don’t have many possessions, and their clothes tell me they are far from wealthy.
My father shakes his head. “I said, there’s no vacancy,” he repeats. “I’m sorry.”
“Please,” the man says, trembling with exhaustion and anxiety. “My wife is going to have a baby–”
“I can see that, but–”
“And we’ve come a long way, all the way from Nazareth.”
I flinch. I wish there was something we could do. My father says the same thing, and then adds, “We sincerely have no room whatsoever. We are filled beyond maximum capacity.”
I watch the despair wash over both of their expressions, and the girl on the donkey–I realize now she is only a few years older than me–looks down to hide her tears. “It’s fine, Joseph. We can–we can manage.”
My father clenches his jaw, looks outside, and then sighs again. “The only other shelter we have is the stable, but I couldn’t put you out there.”
The man, Joseph, brightens at this hopeful notion. “Sir, I will pay you what I can if you let us stay in the stable. I am just worried for my wife. She is due any day, we think.”
“I can see that. I’ll show you where the stable is and Marah will get you whatever bedding we have left.”
I take off before he finishes, anxious to help. When I take the bundle of old blankets out to the chill stable, Joseph is carefully helping his wife get into a comfortable position in the hay.
I kneel and place them by her feet. “It’s not much. I’m so sorry.”
She glances up and gives me a smile before looking back down at her enormous stomach. “He’ll be here soon.”
“He? How do you know?” I say with a small laugh, standing up.
She smiles gently again. “God told me. I know I will have a Son.”
She looks like she wants to say more, but her face twists in pain. I quickly leave them out there, both wishing I could stay and keep them company, and also feeling guilty for keeping them out there.
It’s a quieter night, until about dawn. I’m awoken out of a listless sleep by shouting outside. I thunder down the steps, disregarding our sleeping guests, and out the door. I’m greeted by a rush of cold air, joyful shouts . . . and shepherds. Why are there shepherds jubilantly skipping through the streets? I daresay if I’ve ever seen something stranger.
“Excuse me–” I call out, when I realize I know one of the shepherds. “David! David, what is going on? What are you yelling about?”
He grins back at me. “Our Messiah has been born! Angels came to us last night while we were in the field, and told us He has been born!”
“Who? Who has been born?” I’m nearly exasperated.
He runs back to me now. “Jesus. God’s Son. The angel said last night that He, our Savior, is born. Remember the prophecies about God sending a Savior?”
I know the prophecies–we all do. I look back at the stable, where I’m sure Joseph and his wife are. “Can I go see?” I whisper.
“Go! Jesus is born!” David tears down the street again shouting, unable to contain his jubilation.
I slowly creep into the stable. It’s a mess, but it looks as though they had tried to clean up after the birth of the little boy.
The girl looks surprised but pleased to see me. “I’m glad you came back. Marah? I’m Mary.”
I approach her and the baby boy in her arms cautiously. “What’s his name?”
“Jesus. Emmanuel. He, my baby, is God with us.”
“God?” I peer at the tiny face, the wrinkled fingers, and the dark hair. “That’s impossible.” I don’t know very much about God, but I know He is great, greater than we can comprehend, and enormous and all-encompassing and way out there somewhere. He takes care of us, but He can’t possibly be a baby.
Eternal. Far away. Almighty. That’s God. This little baby? Contained in time like a regular human? Here with us right now? And so helpless and little?
God with us. It doesn’t make sense, as none of the prophecies did; but He’s here now, and that’s all that matters. And if He really has come, maybe everything else the prophets said is true too. Maybe our Messiah really has been born.