I reckon it’s time to have another look at this birthday we’re celebrating next week. Not for the usual reasons – you know, who the hell brings Myrrh as a present? Where were Health and Safety when that innkeeper got his licence? No, it’s the reality of it that concerns me. For a start, there’s no agreement between the two registrars who recorded the birth. You’ve got Matthew’s quick note saying: ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise; When, as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph, her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.’
Fair enough, a reasonable sort of reaction from the guy. Then along comes the obstetric angel Gabriel, tells him it’s cool and that the Holy Ghost did it, so Joseph marries her. But, between 25 and 50 years later, in Luke’s version, Gabriel visits Mary, not Joseph, and gives her the test result. Whichever account you prefer, it’s hard not to feel that Joseph’s getting a bad deal and I think it’s legitimate to speculate on how that crucial exchange between the engaged couple went.
Joe was a hard worker so he was in his shop, putting the finishing touches to a sleigh. Most of the time, there wasn’t much call for sleighs in Galilee but they’d become part of the traditional trappings of that certain time of the year. He was rather surprised when Mary arrived, flushed and slightly breathless.
There was no greeting. Her first words were just ‘Look, Joe. Don’t get mad’.
Joe was surprised.
‘Why should I, honey?’ he said.
He noticed that Mary was avoiding eye contact, looking intently at the runners of the sleigh, smoothing her fingers along them, but too quickly, in a rather agitated way.
‘What’s the matter?’ said Joe. ‘Another of your dreams, is it?’
Mary shook her head. Joe was puzzled. This wasn’t like her. Her days were usually spent quietly beside the river, making Moses baskets out of reeds. She was an untroubled soul.
‘What then?’ he said.
Mary took a deep breath and found the courage to look directly at him.
‘Oh Joe,’ she said. ‘We’re going to have to get married.’
‘I know, Baby,’ he said. ‘We’ve been planning it for ages. We’ll …’
‘No. Now. Right away, I mean.’
Joe was an honourable man and he’d resisted forcing his attentions on Mary before marriage so the idea of bringing the ceremony forward wasn’t unattractive but this was sudden, unexpected. She’d shown no such urgency before.
‘Why?’ was all he said.
Her answer was a bombshell.
Joe dropped his adse.
‘Pregnant?’ he said. ‘But, I thought you was a virgin.’
It was a sure sign of the stress he was feeling. Joe was usually a stickler for grammar but in extremis his working class origins rose to the surface.
‘I am a virgin. I am, Joe. But I’m still pregnant,’ said a desperate Mary.
Words such as ‘dirty little scrubber’ pushed their way into Joe’s mind but he bit them back.
‘Well, well,’ he said. ‘In that case, you’d better go and marry the bloke what done it.’
‘There wasn’t any bloke,’ said Mary.
‘Oh, Act of God, I s’pose,’ sneered Joe.
‘Exactly,’ said Mary. ‘Listen, last night, I was in bed asleep, and suddenly I woke up, and there was this bloke standin by the bed. With big wings stickin out the back. He said . . . Well, he said he was an angel. Called Gabriel.’
Joe paused for a moment, then shook his head.
‘And you fell for it, did you?’
‘Honest, Joe. He never touched me. He never even put down his harp. He just said I’d found favour with God, and I was going to have a baby boy. Said I was goin to be visited. By the Holy Ghost.’
‘That was his mate, I suppose,’ said Joe, wanting to believe her but burning with jealousy.
Mary reached out and touched his hand.
‘This is special, Joe,’ she said. ‘I’m goin to have a baby boy. And he’s gonna be king. And he’s gonna rule over the house of David for ever. And I’m to be blessed among women. Oh, and we’ve got to call the baby Jesus.’
‘Jesus?’ said Joe, the sarcasm dripping from each syllable. ‘Huh, you should’ve realised he was havin you on when he said that.’
Mary frowned. ‘Why?’ she asked.
‘It’s obvious, innit? I mean, if he’d said Kevin or Arthur or somethin, it would’ve made sense. But Jesus? Christ!’
Mary couldn’t hold back her tears any longer. It broke Joe’s heart to see them. He did love her so much.
‘There, there,’ he said. ‘Alright, listen. Just … just tell me what else he said.’
‘Well,’ she said. ‘We’ve got to go to Bethlehem to have him.’
‘Bethlehem?’ said Joe. ‘That’s bloody miles! And there’s no obstetrical units there or nothin.’
‘I know,’ said Mary. ‘We’ve got to have him in a stable and lie him in a manger.’
‘A stable and a manger?’ said Joe. ‘That’s ridiculous. Bit of a cock-up if you ask me.’
Mary nodded, still sniffing back the tears.
‘Well, he said it’s the first time they’ve done a saviour.’
Joe put his arm round her and, with his other hand, stroked her hair.
‘When’s it due?’ he asked, his voice now gentle.
‘Sometime around Christmas,’ said Mary.
The two of them sat there, each trying to come to terms with the change in their relationship, a change that was only fully evident to Joe when he suggested that, since Mary was pregnant anyway, they could go to bed. Together.
‘No, Joe,’ said Mary, in her special, little girl voice. ‘I’ve got to be the Virgin Mary, remember?’
‘How long for?’ said Joe.
‘Two thousand years. At least.’.