Every year, as Advent and Christmas roll around, I return to the contemplation on the Nativity in the Spiritual Exercises. In this contemplation, St. Ignatius invites us to reflect on the Nativity from the viewpoint of a maidservant accompanying the Holy Family. I imagine it this way.
The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem has been long—winding miles through hill and valley. The sun is setting as we enter the gates of Bethlehem. We are hot, sweaty, hungry, and thirsty. Mary has gone into labor and has been in so much pain today that we had to keep stopping. She never complains, though.
The streets of Bethlehem are packed with others, like us, who are in town to register for the census. Making our way uphill through the market, Joseph and I position ourselves on either side of Mary, who is atop the donkey. We try to shield her from the crowds pushing to get to the market before the last vendors close for the night. Everyone is so preoccupied with their tasks that they seem not even to see the woman in labor right in front of them.
We finally come to an inn. Joseph goes to the door and talks with the innkeeper while motioning toward Mary. The man shakes his head. We continue on to one inn after another—all of them full. At the last inn in the town, the innkeeper shakes his head but points toward the field behind the inn. Joseph returns to us and says the inn is full but the owner said we could stay in the stable, so we will, at least, have a roof over our heads.
I’m incredulous. “She is in labor!” I shout. “How can they all say ‘no’? Couldn’t they just move someone?”
I am so angry that no one seems to care that Mary is about to give birth. She tells me not to worry or be upset. “God will take care of us,” she says.
How can she be so calm? I wonder. I admire her faith and her grace.
The stable is within eyeshot, but it is certainly not close. Joseph carries Mary while I hurry ahead to prepare a place for her. I locate a flat area in the center of the stable and remove the soiled hay and dung. I toss a thick layer of fresh, sweet-smelling hay over which Joseph spreads his outer robe. Mary collapses onto the bed of hay.
Grabbing my lantern, I run up to the inn to fetch water. The innkeeper’s wife gives me an armful of clean cloths and a pitcher full of warm water. It’s the least they can do, I think to myself. I walk back to the stable as fast as I can with the pitcher of water in my right hand, the lantern in my left, and the cloths tucked under my arm.
When the baby arrives, I clean him and swaddle him. Joseph’s eyes well with tears as he receives him. He kisses the baby’s hands and forehead. Mary, exhausted, just breathes. I can hear her thanking God softly under her breath. Joseph echoes this sentiment as he gently places the baby in Mary’s arms. They admire his tiny fingers and toes and nuzzle his face. They call him Jesus.
The baby is unusually alert for a newborn. He looks at me, and I feel a strange sense of calm wash over me. All of the frustration and anger I had been feeling over the situation gives way to peace. I feel something else: love. I love this baby. I love this perfect little family. I love this moment! And I feel gratitude; I’m so glad that Mary and the baby are well! I look over, and the baby is still looking at me. He seems to be smiling.