I was honored to be be asked to share a dramatic reading of the Christmas story at our church’s ladies’ Christmas dessert. I almost immediately thought of the innkeeper and his wife. I wondered what that night was like for them. This story is where my imagination took me. Here is my original story of the Innkeeper’s wife and her treasure.
I’ve heard the gossip, the whispered accusations. “Rachel wouldn’t give them a room.” “Rachel made the poor thing give birth among the cattle.” “Rachel wouldn’t make room for the little family.”
None of you knows what my life was like in those days.
The Roman census was crushing me. Every day I walked. All day, every day, walking and never sitting. From my bed to my kitchen. To the well and back, morning and evening. The servant girl is supposed to draw the water for the day. But she’s just a slip of a thing. She couldn’t possibly keep up with the demand. My daughter-in-law can usually make up for it, but Deborah was huge with child by that time. It was all she could do to get from her bed on the floor to the bench by the hearth. Moshe spent his days in the city gate and would come in at the end of the day, greeting everyone and demanding extra attention for this important traveler or that, never caring how much more work he was making for me or the girl. Or for our son David, who cares for the animals, the stable and the stable yard. I’m not sure when David was sleeping, between mucking out stables, spreading new bedding and keeping the mangers filled with fresh hay.
Travelers only care that they have plenty to eat and drink and a comfortable place to sleep. And everyday more came. Moshe wouldn’t hear of turning anyone away. There were people in every bed (usually 2 or more to each cot), more in every available space on the floor. In good weather the roof was covered with little tents, the stable yard with more. My back was killing me, my feet burned, and one day soon Deborah would give birth, probably right there in my kitchen. I just knew I’d be stepping over her to serve supper to the travelers while David paced outside the kitchen door frantically waiting to greet his new son or daughter.
It was the hardest work in a life of hard work, but I had no time to think. Or to complain.
The census was crushing us, but it was also enriching us.
The day before young Joseph and his even younger little wife arrived, an esteemed traveler and his companions vacated our upper room to return to the court at Caesarea. The upper room is the largest and best of the rooms in the house and farthest away from the noise of the common room and the stink of the stables. Moshe and I argued for years about spending that money. I won and now the best room is bringing us the attention and gold I knew it would. Moshe takes all the credit, naturally. Every bad idea is mine, every successful idea his. As soon as the room was cleaned out, the floor scrubbed and the beds freshened with new straw, I saw Moshe standing in the doorway. I could see by his eyes that he was calculating just how many travelers he could fit into the place. I put my foot down. “No. This room is being saved for important guests. A court official or a Roman captain will come any day and we alone will have a room worthy of him. He’ll have gold. The travelers you want to give this room to will have only a few shekels. I’m not slaving even harder to bake bread for a bunch of dirty pilgrims. This room stays open for someone with gold!” I turned my back on him to stop any argument.
So when the girl wakened me long after midnight with news that a young couple was at the gate, asking for a bed, I rose as quietly as I could. I stepped over David, exhausted from his work in the stable and yard, and around Deborah who slept fitfully. I shook Moshe awake and made him come with me to the gate.
He grumbled about needing his rest but opened the gate anyway. We saw a young, worried man with his arms around a girl. They had a small, worn donkey on a lead. “Please. My wife is about to deliver our child. Do you have a bed for us? We’ve come from Nazareth.” A hundred miles. On foot for him. Riding the poor little donkey for her. My heart started to open. Then I saw reason. I’d had to step over and on travelers all over the floor between the kitchen and the door. The other rooms were no better. I had no room for this family. Then I saw Moshe’s face soften. He began to open his mouth to tell them to come into the house.
“No!” I cut him off. “We have no bed for you.”
“No Moshe. There is no bed for these children.” I glimpsed Joseph’s face. But then I looked away. “Put them in the stable yard if you can find room, Moshe. But I have no room, no bed for them in the house.” I turned away as Moshe opened the gate wider for them. I could hear him behind me apologizing to the young man. “Rachel has been working so very hard. Let us find a place in the yard. Maybe tomorrow space will open up in the house.” I steeled myself against his quiet accusations.
My thoughts whirled as I walked back over and around the sleeping travelers filling my home. I don’t sleep in my own bed, a merchant and his wife paid to sleep there. My son and his pregnant wife don’t have a bed, a low-level court official slept there. There was no way this young couple, too silly to even arrive before the yard gate was closed, was going to take up another space in our home.
As I went into the kitchen, David was sitting up, rubbing his eyes sleepily. “What’s happening, Mother?”
“A young couple is looking for a bed. He claims that she’s about to give birth. But who knows? Your father is finding a place for them in the yard.”
He came over to where I was stirring the embers on the hearth “About to give birth? Why not give them the upper room?”
“Shhhhh!” I looked to the corner where Deborah was quietly snoring. She’d finally found a position she could sleep in. ”That room is reserved for important guests. Guests with gold. Now go back to sleep.” There’d be no more sleeping for me.
David whispered at me, “Mother, you can’t put a girl about to give birth in the yard! What if it were Deborah who needed a bed?”
“Deborah needs a bed, but your father has insisted a stranger take that one!” I punched down my risen dough, and began kneading it with great vigor. I ignored David’s sighs as he threw on his warm mantle and headed out to the yard.
I put the couple from my mind as the rest of the day filled with the same exhausting bustle and busyness of all the days before. None of our guests from the night before left. The girl and I filled jar after jar with water at the well. I baked loaf after loaf of bread. I started a savory onion and garlic stew. I only hoped it would be enough. The pantry was getting low. At about noon I realized that Deborah wasn’t in her usual spot in the kitchen. Oh I hoped she wasn’t off somewhere laboring in silence. I asked the girl. “I saw her in the stable with the little lady, mistress.” The stable with the little lady. My mind was blank. I had no idea what she meant.
I opened the kitchen door and looked toward the stable to see David walking into it with a bag of clean straw. Without thinking, I wrapped a couple of warm loaves into a clean cloth, grabbed a cheese and a handful of dates, and stepped out into the yard. It was colder than it had been, the wind was blowing. As I stepped into the the stable I heard quiet talking and laughter. In a corner I saw the young girl resting on a clean blanket covering a thick bed of straw. She looked drowsy. She really was huge with child. Her young man was alert beside her. Seated nearby was Deborah. I couldn’t tell what she was doing with her hands but her eyes were transfixed by the face of the girl.
Then I saw Moshe. He was seated on a stool with his back to the little party. His tallit over his head. I could hear him quietly mumbling prayers and blessings. What was he doing here? Was he mad?
David turned from the manger where he was spreading new, sweet hay. He spoke quietly. “Mother. Thank you!” He took the food gently from my arms. “I know they’re hungry.”
“Do you have enough water out here?”
“Yes, I went to the well. You have too much to do, I didn’t want to take water from the house” I gasped. My son went to the well for our guests because he didn’t want to bother me? I was ashamed.
“If you need anything, just ask.” In my shame my words came out sharp and cold. Then I saw the faces of the man and his wife. They stared at one another in silent wonder. My thoughts went to the open, well furnished room in the house. I shut that down and left the dark little cave that had served as an animal shelter for decades. I recalled the faces of my family as they watched the strangers. What were they thinking? They’ve all gone mad. I straightened up and went back into the house to finish getting ready for the evening meal. Alone if I had to.
Once the meal was served the girl and I cleaned up the kitchen. As I opened the yard door to throw out the wash water, I saw light coming from the stable. Shadows danced. What was going on now? I wrapped an extra robe around my shoulders and crossed the yard.
I could hear cattle lowing restlessly. A donkey brayed. The little stable was lit by several oil lamps notched into the cave walls. Lamp oil was costly. Moshe had strict orders that they be lit only when a cow was ill or having difficulty laboring.
Deborah dozed quietly against David’s shoulder and held the hand of the girl, who seemed to be praying quietly. Moshe leaned against a wall sleeping. The young husband was curled up at the feet of his beloved. My thoughts went again to the empty upper room. No one had come with gold. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to move them there. Just until the babe came. By then another bed would open. My bed, or even Deborah’s, provided her little one stays put. I looked at the face of the little mother. She was so young. I went over to Moshe, snoring as he leaned against the wall. “Moshe, wake up. Moshe.”
“Huh? What is it, Rachel?”
“Move them. Take them into the house. The bed in the upper room is clean and fresh and ready for the little mother.”
David had joined us in the corner. “Are you sure, Mother? It may yet be some time.” I looked toward the young family.
“I’m sure. Move them to the…” I was interrupted by a quiet but intense cry. The girl was hunched over. Deborah was talking quietly to her.
“Hush, Mary. Shhh.” She soothed.
Was I too late? Could we move her now? Mary’s husband held her in his arms. Another labor pain came quickly after the first. My heart sank. It was too late. There would be no moving her now. She’d give birth in the stable, because of my foolishness and my hard hearted greed. What had I been thinking?
“Joseph, I’m scared.” It was the first time I’d heard Mary speak, and it made me spring into action.
“Moshe, David, go now. Deborah and I will handle this. Bring extra blankets from the house. Get the girl to stir the fire, have her get water warmed. And send for Widow Hinda. She’s delivered lots of babes. Pay her to come if you need to.” They moved quickly to follow my orders. “Deborah, we’ll need clean cloths for the babe. Sooner than I thought.”
“They’re here, mother. I brought them this morning.” I realized then what I’d seen her doing with her hands this afternoon. She was preparing swaddling cloths that she’d lovingly woven and prepared for her own little one. She was ready to give them up for this little mother and her tiny babe. Her generous gift melted the last of the ice in my heart. I loved her so, and my wee grandchild sleeping in her womb.
Another cry from Mary interrupted my thoughts. The baby would be here soon. She must have been laboring silently all day long.
The rest of the night passed in a blur. Mary was brave and wonderful. I was so glad for the presence of Auntie Hinda. She was calm and business like. Deborah grew too weary to carry on and curled up in a corner to sleep for awhile, but was awake again to witness the birth of the baby boy, just after midnight. Mary and Joseph cried and laughed. Auntie Hinda asked, as Moshe helped her to her feet, “What will you call him, child?”
Mary looked deeply into Joseph’s eyes before answering, “Jesus, Auntie. We’ve been told to call him Jesus.”
Now you know the real story of how the baby came to be born in our stable, and not in my home. How I saved my best room for no one, to my eternal shame. What you don’t know is that my heart was changed and that Mary and Joseph forgave me. When the shepherds came later that night and through the next day, I’m ashamed that I was thankful that they wouldn’t be tracking their muck through my house, to the upper room. When I heard their story of the angels and the night sky glowing with a message from God, I knew it was true and I also knew that my empty room and the way I treasured it, was nothing. Somehow I and my family and everyone we knew were now part of a grand and momentous plan. I don’t know where this will lead but I know our lives are changed.
Since that night, so many wonderful things have happened. The census is nearly over. The flow of travelers has slowed, so Mary and Joseph moved into the house after returning from Jerusalem where little Jesus was dedicated in the Temple. I wanted so badly for them to take the upper room, but they laughed and told me that a carpenter’s family would feel strange in such luxury. One of the small rooms has been theirs since.
And Deborah as been delivered of our grandson, Moshe. David is walking on air these days. They are the happiest of families. We are the happiest of families. The best part of my day is the afternoon when I get to sit in the sunshine with Mary and Deborah and their baby boys. I watch and I imagine them growing up, playing in the stable yard with the other little boys here in Bethlehem. Growing strong together. Like brothers. Joseph and Mary will go back to Nazareth soon, but my dearest hope is that they’ll bring Jesus to visit often. They will always have a second home with us here in the City of David. And I will always have room for Jesus and his mama and papa.
Now I must go. A caravan is approaching from Jerusalem. Their messenger says they are eastern kings and they are coming here. He came with gold to secure the best room in Bethlehem. The girls and I have a lot to do to make sure my best room is ready for our new visitors.