Mary was born in troubled times. Years ago, when her grandfather was a boy, Rome had overcome Jerusalem and occupied all of Israel and Judea. There were terrible stories of that time and even now, the land seethed with danger. The Romans had installed Herod as King, and Herod did not care for his people. There were so many things to remember, to stay safe. Mary’s mother told her to keep her head down and never walk alone. Mary had a sick feeling in her stomach if she came upon a group of soldiers standing on a corner in their red and silver uniforms. Even if she walked with her uncle or her father, she felt afraid. It was too easy for something to go wrong. She had seen a man beaten just for walking too close to the soldiers.
Her village felt like the sea, one thing on the surface, and so much beneath the water. Every family felt differently about the occupation. Some people ran willingly into the arms of idol worshipers, her father said. Some resisted and moved into caves in the wilderness, to make grand plans of rescue. And some kept their heads down, waiting, always waiting for the one who would come to set them free to worship celebrate the feasts. Last year Herod had canceled Passover in Jerusalem, a thing of great sorrow. Mary’s father had wept for hours, sitting on the floor with his tallit over his head.
Her parents often warned her about walking after dark.
“If it is too late to get home before sunset,” they said, “stay where you are. Send a boy to tell us. We don’t want you walking at night. It’s not safe with the soldiers everywhere.”
So it was dangerous, but there were beautiful parts about her life in the village. Meals at the family hearth, goat milk with spices in the evenings. Her family had a flock of goats, and Mary loved the feeling she got when she went out to call the goats home and the whole world was bathed in golden light. There were moments that nearly called her heart out of her body: the shadows over the low hills, the smell of plants crushed under her feet. She got the urge to run, and sometimes she did, chasing the baby goats until it was time to bring them all home.
She wondered if she would feel the same freedom when she married Joseph. She had been promised to him for a long time. Sometimes, when he came to visit her father, she peeked at him from under her veil. He had a kind face, with curly black hair and skin just a shade lighter than her own brown skin. There was gray in his beard, though. When Mary mentioned the gray beard, her mother frowned.
“You are very lucky, Mary. Joseph isn’t that old! It is only that he has been taxed as we all have. Times are hard for us. We have to give most of everything we earn away.” Then she would sigh or cry and Mary would sneak out to look at the stars outside the door.
Mary didn’t want to think about the taxes, the occupation, or King Herod. She wanted to think about the stories of Adonai making the world. How did he do it? she wondered. She wasn’t often allowed to sit and listen when the men talked about such things. But she sat and looked at the stars and thought, and thought, and thought about it. Especially on mornings when it seemed that the world was exploding with light and color. How did he do it? And having made such a lot of beauty, did he ever think about her?
One night she took too long bringing the goats back. Her mother had been crying, again, about how much of their grain Herod’s tax collectors had demanded, and Mary felt that if she could run along the hillsides, she could outrun all of it.
But the sun fell behind the mountain before she knew it, and the world was suddenly darkened. Heart beating, she gathered the goats and urged them through the pasture and into the yard. When she got them to the animal hut, her heart was in her throat. Everything she had ever heard about darkness and danger came back to her. She pushed the goats through and went inside to pour their water.
She nearly screamed when she saw the… man standing there. Was it a man? He was so tall that his head brushed the rafters, and his skin was dark like a night without a moon, a darker, bluer black than she had ever before seen, but his skin seemed lit with silver light where her lantern shone on his hands and face.
“Elohim sees you, young sister,” he said. “The Lord has seen you and knows how beautiful your heart is. He has chosen you.”
She stared at him. “He knows who I am?” she whispered.
“Don’t be scared,” he answered. “You can come closer if you want.”
“Where are you from? Do you have a name?” she asked.
“From the sky,” he told her. “My name is Gabriel. And I’m here to tell you that Adonai sees you and is giving you a gift beyond your imagination. You are going to have a baby and you will call him Jesus. He will be the Son of the Most High and will be a king like David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
“I’m sorry,” Mary said. “I’m not sure that I heard properly. When? When is this supposed to be? I’m not even married yet.”
The man smiled. “This won’t happen in any kind of ordinary way. The Spirit of God will come to you and the power of the Most High will overwhelm you. The baby will be the Son of God.”
A goat bleated loudly. Mary blinked. She looked down at herself, her brown hands and bare feet, her completely ordinary body, her tunic flapping around in some strange wind. She had asked if God saw her. He had answered. The wind tugged at her hair and she felt a strange, sudden joy. The angel smiled at her again.
“I have only ever wanted to serve the Most High,” Mary whispered. “I am willing. Let it be to me as you say.”
The tall, tall man stooped to leave the barn, touching her on the shoulder as he did so, and she felt courage cover her like a warm blanket.
Joseph hadn’t called off the wedding. This was what Mary reminded herself, over and over again, as they journeyed the long miles to Bethlehem. For safety, they traveled in a big group, and Mary was thankful that Joseph owned a donkey. Even though the donkey walked with a jolt that made her feel as though her hips would never be the same. He was affectionate with her but stubborn. She named him Nimrod, and was thankful that she didn’t have to walk, since it was during her ninth month of pregnancy that Caesar had got it into his head to count his hordes of subjects. “To make sure he gets enough taxes,” her mother had said, wringing her hands.
It was after dark when they finally arrived in Bethlehem. Their companions had trickled off one by one as they went to their home towns, until it was finally just Joseph, Mary and Nimrod. Mary could tell by the set of Joseph’s shoulders that he was worried about traveling after dark.
“What was the dream like?” she had asked him, on the day he came back to her father to say that he would marry her after all.
Both of them had stared at her. Her father had sorrow behind his eyes that had been there since the day Mary told them of her pregnancy. She understood. It wasn’t supposed to be possible for women to get pregnant on their own. Her father didn’t know whether to believe her when she told him about Gabriel.
“There was a man.”
“Black as a night with no moon?”
“And a sword in his hand…” Joseph said, nodding. “He called me the son of David, and told me that the baby in your belly is from the Holy Spirit. Like you said, Mary. And that he will be called Immanuel. God with us.”
Once they were within the walls of the city, Joseph relaxed. He grew anxious again, though, when innkeeper after innkeeper looked at them and said, “We’re full.” Mary couldn’t tell if they were lying. She stood leaning on Nimrod, waiting while Joseph went from door to door.
“Is it you?” she asked the donkey, stroking his nose. “Or me?”
They certainly looked rough after their journey, and she was obviously a northerner, with the distinctive patterns on her rough woven cloak. She winced as she felt a sharp pang at the bottom of her belly. Nimrod whickered beside her. Another pain came, this one sharper. No! She thought. Not now. Joseph turned away from the last innkeeper, anger and humiliation warring on his face.
“Sir!” she said, before the innkeeper closed the door. “Can we stay there?” She pointed.
“Mary!” Joseph said. “In the animal hut?”
“We must, husband,” she said, gasping now. “We need a place to rest.”
He stared at her for a moment, and turned to look at the innkeeper. The innkeeper gave a brief nod, and none too soon.
The animal hut was dark and dirty, but it didn’t matter. Mary gave birth there, with only Joseph to help her. The innkeeper offered some towels and warm water, and his wife helped to clean Mary up.
The birth was worse and better than she had expected. Worse because it was more painful than people had described to her. Better because it was fast. Worse because when the baby left her body, she felt separated from a kernel of peace that had rested under her heart for all these months. She picked him up and nursed him, murmuring over him, kissing his sweet head and velvety brown skin. He opened his eyes and looked at her, and a tiny star flared up again inside her. The world was well, when he was in it.
Immanuel, she murmured.
The shepherds were a surprise. She was finally falling asleep when they came roaring up. They drifted into the animal hut, looking stunned, scared, and sleepless. They had a story about the sky filled with fire and singing creatures, but all she really wanted to know was what the first angel looked like. “He filled the whole sky,” one said. “His skin was like the darkest depths of the sea. But he shone like sparks of fire.”
Mary smiled and picked the infant out of the feed trough, pulling him close to her and laying back in the little nest Joseph had made for her. Gabriel, again, she thought. The tiny star inside her glowed. He told them, too, she thought. She looked at her new baby. He told a group of shepherds about you. Who are you? Why does Adonai love me so much, that he gave me you?
The days turned into a kind of long dream. She slept, ate, and took care of her baby. Sometimes when she gazed at him sleeping, she felt a familiar longing. It was the same feeling she had when she looked off at the hills. As though she wanted to run, and run. But she no longer asked whether Adonai ever thought about her. She knew he did.
People whispered about her, in the market, on the road. They knew she and Joseph hadn’t been married long enough for Jesus to be born to them. But between lack of sleep and the wonder she lived in, Mary couldn’t feel the sting of the whispers.
“My soul reaches to Adonai,” she whispered to Jesus as he slept. “My spirit is singing to Hashem the saving one. He saw me, even though I am very small. Even though I am the smallest bird, just a little sparrow. He saw me, and he gave me you, and no one will ever forget it.”
But times were troubled. The king was growing increasingly difficult. There were stories of violence, and the little family decided to stay in Bethlehem to be safe. Mary tried to ignore the rumors, until she was thrust right into the center of everything.
One night, there was a knock at the door. When Joseph opened it, he let out a little sound of surprise. There were three men there, with a whole train of servants in the yard. Mary covered her head quickly. She had never seen anyone like these men from far off lands. They wore fine embroidered cloaks and elaborate head-dresses. Their faces were strange. She sat holding her baby, and when the men saw her there with him, they fell on their knees and bent their faces to the earth. She was frozen in shock. No one should bow except to Adonai alone.
She looked at her baby. He gazed back at the men, and the tiny star within her flared into a bright flame. Tears ran down her cheeks as the men offered treasures to Jesus. They told her of a star that had guided them, and dream they had, a giant angel like a radiant night, who told them not to tell Herod that they had found Jesus. And then not much later, Gabriel visited Joseph again in a dream.
“He spoke to me again,” Joseph told Mary the next day.
She didn’t have to ask him who.
“What did he say?” she asked.
“We have to run, to flee to Egypt. Herod wants to destroy Jesus.”
Mary couldn’t understand why Herod wanted her son, but she needed no other warning. Gabriel had always been right. He had been helping and watching from the beginning. Joseph and Mary packed what they needed and left, with barely enough time to say goodbye to their neighbors. Nimrod carried Mary and the baby once again, and as they rode, Mary’s heart felt as though it would swell to bursting with joy, which made absolutely no sense. They were refugees, penniless, with only a donkey to carry them. They could only hope the Egyptians wouldn’t turn them away. But the star in her heart burned bright and strong. Adonai cared for them, sending his angel to save them. She felt like he had run with her, across the hillsides, carrying the beauty of the mountains right into her heart. He had given her Immanuel, her own infant son to care for, and she would carry deep joy as long as Jesus was with her.
“He has done great things for me, and holy is his name,” she whispered to Jesus as they crossed fields in the dark. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones. He has lifted the poor and needy, and fed the hungry. No one can be proud before him. He will pour mercy down on his children forever and ever.”