Joseph’s wooden staff left a trail of small, evenly spaced circles in the dusty road. So many miles they’d traveled on the road to Bethlehem. Though he was a strong man accustomed to hard work, Joseph could feel the long days of travel in his back and feet. He glanced at his wife riding on the plodding donkey and saw that she was near exhaustion.
“Not far now,” he said softly. Mary smiled and gently caressed her abdomen.
“Oh Lord, lead us the place where this baby is to be born,” Joseph prayed silently.
The sun would soon set, and the trees and rocks cast shadows across the deserted road. Finally, they could see the outskirts of Bethlehem. When they reached the first small houses, Joseph stopped a woman carrying a jar of water and asked for a drink for Mary. The woman smiled kindly.
“Have you come for the census?” she inquired.
“Yes,” Joseph replied. “Do you know of an inn nearby where my wife could rest?”
“It’s nearly your time, isn’t it dear?” the woman asked kindly.
“I fear most of the inns around here are full,” she said. But you might try Jacob’s. He’s got a nice big place. Follow this road until you reach a small grove of cedars. Go to the right and you will find it.”
Joseph thanked the woman and led the donkey down the road.
As daylight faded, they reached the place the woman had told them about. Warm light and the smell of dinner beckoned from the windows. Before Joseph could knock, a neat, rather portly man opened the broad wooden door.
“Yes?” the innkeeper asked.
“Sir, I wondered if you might have a room for the night,” Joseph asked with fatigue in his voice.
Cradling his chin in his left hand, the innkeeper studied the tired travelers. Joseph’s cloak was worn, and the donkey thin and bedraggled. Mary looked as if she were ready to give birth at any moment.
“I could take them in out of charity,” he thought, “because they certainly can’t pay enough. But I don’t want to deal with childbirth tonight.”
“Yes, well, I would like to offer you a room,” the innkeeper said to Joseph. “I have one left and the price is two denarii.”
Joseph’s face fell. “Sir, we can’t afford that. Please, my wife must rest.”
The innkeeper hesitated, and then crossed his arms. “I’m sorry, I have expenses.”
“Thank you,” Joseph said patiently as he turned to leave. After a bit, Mary said to him: “Don’t worry, Joseph. That wasn’t the place for us. When I close my eyes, I can sense a simple and peaceful spot where He will be born.”
As they continued into the city they came to another inn, more modest than the last. A group of travelers waited at the door.
“Are there any rooms here?” Joseph asked one of them.
In an agitated voice the man replied, “The innkeeper has one room left and he wants to get his price. I’ve got my wife and two girls, and I don’t know where we’ll go if we don’t get it.”
Before Joseph could get the innkeeper’s attention, another couple put a bag of coins in the man’s hand.
“Please sir—” he started.
The innkeeper eyed Joseph with irritation. “You people come for the census and expect to be treated like royalty. You may be of royal David’s line, but you’re no better than anyone else. I have no more rooms, so you’ll have to keep looking.”
“Sir, I just want to know if you could recommend another inn. My wife is—“
“Continue on this road to the edge of the city,” the innkeeper snapped, “and you will find another place. Good luck and good riddance.” He turned and entered the inn, slamming the door behind him.
Joseph sighed and wondered how much longer Mary could travel before they would have to stop … somewhere. Dejected, he told her the bad news. Mary touched his arm and said, “God will provide, Joseph, and He will not be one minute late.”
He marveled at her faith as he coaxed the donkey onto the road. Mary was so young, barely reaching his shoulder, yet there was a grace and maturity about her. And she was to give birth to the Holy One of Israel—with his help. Joseph didn’t fully understand how this could be happening to him.
They passed through the darkening city and into the surrounding hills. At last they came to the place the other innkeeper had mentioned. Located at the base of a large hill, this inn was small and poor. Mary shifted her weight on the donkey, in obvious discomfort. “Our King will arrive soon, Joseph. Won’t it be wonderful to see Him?”
“Yes, yes it will,” Joseph said, the worry lines on his face giving way to a gentle smile. Joseph knocked on the door and a tall, thin man answered. He looked at Joseph and Mary on the donkey and said in a tired voice, “I’m sorry but we don’t have room for you tonight.”
Then the man’s wife came to the door and said, “David, look, she’s going to have a baby. Couldn’t we find a place for them?”
The innkeeper thought for a moment and said, “You could stay in our stable. It would be warm and dry, and I just filled it with fresh hay. It’s humble, but it would be peaceful.”
Joseph thought indignantly, “So it’s come to this. What kind of provider brings his wife and child to stay in a stable? What must she think of me…?” He glanced tentatively at Mary.
She calmly asked the innkeepers: “Are there many animals in your stable?
“Ma’am, an ox, a donkey, a ewe and her lamb, along with the dog and cat. But don’t worry. They’re all as gentle as can be.”
Mary turned to Joseph and said, “This is the place, I am quite sure. Our King has chosen a humble birth.”
The innkeeper led them to a cave where they could feel the animals’ warm breath. The innkeeper helped Joseph make a fire and a bed for Mary. He promised to bring water, clean cloths and food.
After the innkeeper left, Joseph looked around at how God had provided for them. Then kneeling on the hard ground, he said a silent prayer of thanks.