Until the 1960’s it was not customary for fathers to be physically present in the room while their children were being born.
Birthing was the realm of women, and men were not Lamaze coaches. They were not hand holders or breathing assistants. They were outside – where men belonged.
So when Mary told Joseph that her water had broken and that it was time for the baby to come – he ran to a nearby house and was able to summon a midwife and her apprentice.
After he escorted them to the stable he didn’t go back in himself – but he stood outside to wait. And as he was out there on that crystal clear night – with the sound of cattle lowing and the occasional muffled chatter of women’s voices in the background – he paced. Back and forth. Then he’d sit on the large rock. Then he’d pace. Then he’d sit. Then he’d pace – and ponder – trying to figure out what in the world was the meaning of it all.
The pregnancy – the angelic visions – the unexpected trip to Bethlehem. Something was happening. He didn’t know what and he still wasn’t totally sure that he wanted to be a part of it.
And as he was turning the events over in his mind and pacing the 50 feet in front of the stable door – suddenly from the shadow the figure of a man appeared walking his direction.
Joseph knew that he should have been afraid of figures in the dark but at that point he was just looking for company – anything to help distract him from the deluge of confusion. And the figure did not look at all threatening. To the contrary it moved as a stiff old man. And he slowly emerged from the shadow cast by a large sycamore tree.
“Shalom, good sir”, he greet Joseph. “Do you know where a weary traveler might find a place for the night?”
“Shalom, Father,” Joseph respectfully replied to the man who was obviously his senior. “I am afraid that there is no room left in the whole town. As a matter of fact my wife and I couldn’t find a place to stay so we ended up in this stable. But as it would happen her time has come and the midwives are in there now.”
“Oh, so that’s why you’re standing in the dark and the cold. Perhaps you’ll have a son!”
“Indeed, I’m sure I will. God has told me as much,” said Joseph, with a slight hint of pride.
“Really?” the stranger replied with a curious voice. “How did this come about?”
The man came closer to hear Joseph’s story.
“Well, it’s like this,” explained Joseph, as he launched into all the details of how he was betrothed to this beautiful young woman and then she announced to him that God was going to provide a baby through her and that indeed she was at that moment with child.
“Hmm?” said the old man, I’ve been around awhile, longer than you think just by looking at me, and I can tell you that women are prone to make up such things to save themselves from their shame – and a beating. If you ask me she had someone on the side that no one knew about. I’ve seen it before – probably a fieldhand...”
“No, I don’t think so,” Joseph firmly replied. “You see, I was getting ready to divorce her. But an angel appeared to me in a dream and told me that I was to continue with the marriage because this was a child from God. And not just that but that I should name him ‘Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’”
At this, the old man, started to become slightly agitated. “Young sir, you must have a fertile imagination to have dreamt of an angel and to accept this explanation of the infidelity of your betrothed.
“Think about it, how is it that a virgin could give birth? Has any such thing ever occurred in the history of peoples – Jew or Gentile? At best you are believing something to soothe the hurt of your heart. At worse you are the victim of a great deception.”
Stunned by the bluntness of the man’s words, Joseph took a step back. But he himself lacked words to even attempt a response.
Had he been deceived?
“If I were you, young sir, I‘d turn and leave this evil tonight. Can anything good come from such a wanton woman? Every minute you linger the deception grows greater and the danger to your soul increases. Come with me. I’ll take you from all this to some place far away, where you’ll be safe – where your mind will be at ease and your life uninterrupted."
“I appreciate your kind concern,” said Joseph. “But I think there is something to this. The dream was very real and very specific. And on top of that, other family members have reported visions and dreams as well.”
“Ah, but that only proves that there is some great evil at work here,” said the man. “There is much deception. These are not good days. People don’t know the danger of it all. They think that God will send some kind of Messiah. Every little thing is a sign. They want it too much and like you, are willing to let their imaginations run wild.
“Can it really be that a Messiah will come? Do you really think that God cares that much? The prophets who talked of such have been gone for hundreds of years – and nothing has happened – except trouble – more trouble. Now the Romans are tightening the noose around the neck of the Jews. Why do you think everyone has been summoned to return to their family towns for a census? They’re getting ready to slaughter the whole lot of us. They want a census so they can track their progress.
“Come with me! We’ll escape this tyranny and the deception of your wife, as well.”
At that moment one of the midwives poked her head out past the stable door and cried out, “Joseph, you have a son! Mozeltof!”
Joseph turned to leave the conspiracy theorist so he could attend to his wife.
“Don’t go! He’s not your son!” the old man reached and grabbed on to Joseph’s sleeve. “You’ll regret it if you go into that barn. Your life will never be the same. This son is nothing but trouble I tell you.”
Joseph pulled away from the man. But he wasn’t sure if it was because he wanted to go into the barn or if he wanted to follow the man rather than be led by his tug. It was a scarey eternal pause – a moment of decision – a moment interrupted by the sound of an approaching small crowd – an excited and loud group of shepherds – singing and talking – unconcerned that the town was asleep. “Angels! We’ve seen angels!” they blurted out at the tops of their lungs – before they even conveyed the customary greeting of peace.
“They said we should look for a baby” said one, as another was saying something about “glory to God – peace on earth.”
The old man, disgusted by the whole display, groaned - “Ahhh – It’s too late.”
The shepherds followed Joseph as he hurried to lead them through the barn door – but as he entered he turned back to see if the old man was going to come share his joy, too. But he was gone. Vanished into the dark. And in that moment as Joseph turned his gaze from the place where the man had been, his eye caught a snake slithering up the big old tree.