wordsout by godfrey rust
BREAKING THE CHAINS  < 7 of 61 >   christmas >

Joseph and the shepherds

Midnight in Bethlehem, Zero AD.
One or two people in difficulty.
Out on the street with a donkey and wife
Joseph had reached a low point in his life
with the kind of a problem that won't go away:
a woman in labour, and nowhere to stay.
Now the root of it all, when you boiled the thing down,
was too many people in too small a town.
When they dreamed up the plan of administration
for a poll tax on all of the Jewish nation
only a bureaucrat somewhere like Rome
would send everyone back to their ancestors' home,
for little old Bethlehem wasn't designed
to cater for David's prolific line.
Still the problem was there and he couldn't disown it:
they'd left it too late, and Joseph had blown it.
If they'd finished the packing the evening before
and not gone back to check that they'd locked the
     front door—
if they'd not missed the turning at that roundabout—
if they'd filled up the donkey before they set out—
if they hadn't agreed to call in and see
all of Mary's relations at Bethany—
or if only he'd booked by Israeli Express
that would have done nicely—but this was a mess.
No room at the inn. No room anywhere.
They gave him the only place they could spare
and the promised Messiah was born that night
on the floor of a stable without any light
where they cut the cord and cleaned up the mess
and wrapped him in somebody's workaday dress
and while Mary slept there, exhausted and cold,
Joseph sat by feeling helpless and old.
This wasn't the way he had thought it would be
when the angel had told him that destiny
chose them to look after the Holy One.
No, this was a farce. What God had done
was to trust the care of the Saviour instead
to a man who could not even find him a bed.
If only he'd planned it more carefully then.
If he only could go back and do it again.
He turned round in his mind the ways he had
then he looked at the infant and suddenly wondered
if it all was a lie, if he was a fool
and the object of everyone's ridicule,
if the dreams of the angels were tricks and not
what they promised to be, and his anger grew hot
when the shepherds burst in all breathless and wild
and stopped in their tracks when they saw the child.
They shifted their gaze from the baby's bed
and their eyes met his, and he nodded his head,
standing awkwardly, not knowing quite what to do
now they all knew for certain the story was true.
They stayed there for minutes. It might have been years.
Not one of them spoke. Their hopes and their fears
were gathered around this helpless God
as their minds tried to grasp what it meant. Where
     he stood
Joseph was silent as finally
he saw this was how it was planned to be,
that the smell and the dark and the dirt and the pain
were not Joseph's mistake but God's choice once again:
past midnight in Bethlehem, Joseph knew
that men would be saved despite all they might do.
He could not control it. He did not understand.
He felt like a baby himself in God’s hand.
He thought of his anger and flushed now with shame.
He remembered the angel had said that his name
would be Jesus, God saves.
                                                He glanced up and saw
that the shepherds had gone. Day had dawned. From
     the floor
Mary gazed at him, quizzical, on her straw bed.
The tiny God-child cried out to be fed.
Joseph moved to the business of the new day,
gave the child to its mother, the donkey some hay.

Written for the carol service at St John’s, West Ealing in 1989.  

It is more or less certain that Jesus wasn't born in 0 AD (more likely sometime between 5BC and 2BC), and 0 AD doesn't exist anyway as the calendar goes from 1 BC to 1 AD, and these days it's considered correct to call them 1 BCE and 1 CE, but hey, it's a poem.

Typical performance time: 3 minutes 30 seconds.

Godfrey Rust 1989, godfrey@wordsout.co.uk. See here for permissions.