No Room

This is the story of Jesus' birth, told from a slightly different angle. A good reading for a Christmas Eve service. I think it's best read in darkness lit only by candles. In a big church, the readers could read from the back of the church or the soundbooth, with the stage empty except for candles and perhaps a prop or two to help imagination (an oil lamp and some straw?); in a small gathering, the readers can simply sit among the listeners, each reading by the light of a candle held close to the page.

The first narrator section is not of course necessary, but helps to clarify a little. It's good to have the narrator announce each character before they read, to help the listener keep them straight.


And they laid him in a manger,‭ ‬for there was no room in the inn.‭

But what were they doing at an inn,‭ ‬in Joseph's own hometown‭? ‬Only foreigners used inns.‭ ‬And maybe people whose relatives had thrown them out.‭ ‬That,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬is possible. Especially under the circumstances.

But there is another possibility.‭ ‬There's another way to translate it:

And they laid him in a manger,‭ ‬for there was no room in the guestroom.

There they are,‭ ‬in Joseph's own hometown with Joseph's relatives,‭ ‬who have taken them in as good relatives must,‭ ‬no matter what.‭ ‬But there is no room in the guestroom.‭ ‬No room for a pregnant mother,‭ ‬no room for a new baby‭; ‬there is no room anywhere but where the mangers are,‭ ‬in the back room of the house where the animals live. Under the circumstances.

There they are,‭ ‬in the house of Judah and Rachel,‭ ‬where there is no room.‭ ‬And there in this house is Mary,‭ ‬or as they called her back then...



I sleep so much now in my ninth month.‭ ‬I'm alone in the dim bedroom for once,‭ ‬everyone gone to some gathering except the women,‭ ‬and them working outside at the bread-baking.‭ ‬At night the sleeping mats are packed with bodies,‭ ‬I couldn't roll over even if my belly weren't the size of a house.‭ ‬It's lovely to be alone.‭ ‬The afternoon sunlight glows warm through the thin curtain‭; ‬outside I hear the rhythmic thumping of the kneading trough,‭ ‬and the low voices of Rachel and Tabitha her daughter.‭

Then the voices begin to rise.

“‬I have to fetch water again‭?” ‬It's Tabitha,‭ ‬her voice incredulous.‭ “‬What do we need‭ ‬more for‭? ‬We have plenty‭!”

“You need a lot of water at a birth.‭” ‬Rachel's voice is firm.‭ “‬And it could be anytime now.‭”

“It's for‭ ‬her‭?”

“Yes.‭” ‬Rachel's voice has an edge to it now.

“‬She should fetch her own water.‭ ‬After what she's done.‭”

I hear a clank,‭ ‬and a silence charged with anger‭; ‬I hear a sharp intake of breath.‭ ‬My hand moves in spite of me,‭ ‬and I twitch aside the curtain just a tiny bit,‭ ‬and raise my head to see‭; ‬in the little courtyard,‭ ‬Rachel stands glowering beside the bread-oven,‭ ‬and Tabitha kneels,‭ ‬her hands still in the kneading-trough,‭ ‬her head thrown back in defiance.

“‬You don't know what she's done,‭ ‬girl,‭ ‬so you can keep your mouth shut about it.‭ ‬She is a guest in this house.‭ ‬And she is married to Joseph. And that's all I need to know and it's all‭ ‬you need to know too.‭”

“And what do the girls at the well need to know‭? ‬You want to tell me what to tell‭ ‬them‭? ‬Do you have‭ ‬any idea what the neighbors are saying about the fact that you even let her under our roof‭?”

Rachel's hand flashes out and the slap rings in the quiet courtyard.‭ ‬Tabitha is on her knees,‭ ‬her eyes wide,‭ ‬her hair wild,‭ ‬a red mark on her cheek.‭ ‬She rises slowly,‭ ‬jerkily,‭ ‬as if her legs will hardly obey her.‭ ‬She leans into her mother's furious face and says through her teeth,‭ “‬That's not my cousin's baby,‭ ‬and you know it.‭ ‬I'd have been‭ ‬stoned.‭ ‬And you wouldn't have lifted a finger.‭”
Rachel stands like a statue as Tabitha grabs the bucket and walks out of the courtyard.‭ ‬I see her go by my window,‭ ‬her face twitching with fury.

I drop the curtain and settle back down on my mat,‭ ‬shifting the awkward weight of my belly.


It's the middle of the night‭; ‬pitch black in here.‭ ‬What woke me‭? ‬I hear it again,‭ ‬from the back room where the animals sleep—a flurry of voices,‭ ‬a low bellow from the ox.‭ ‬It's happening.

‬The house is so full this winter you can hardly sit down or breathe—it could be almost anything,‭ ‬the ox could have kicked someone in his sleep—but I have a feeling,‭ ‬and I'm not the oldest of ten and a mother of eight for nothing.‭ ‬It's come.‭ ‬And it's God's mercy it's come now,‭ ‬halfway through the night,‭ ‬and I'll not wake Judah or anyone but the girls,‭ ‬and by the time he wakes it'll be over.‭ ‬Finally.‭ ‬This will be over.

“‬Tabitha‭!” ‬I hiss.

‬Tabitha groans,‭ ‬loudly.‭ ‬I shouldn't have woken her—but I have to.‭ ‬I have to get her out of here.‭ “‬Tabitha.‭ ‬Wake up,‭ ‬girl,‭ ‬and run for the midwife.‭”

“The‭ ‬midwife‭? ‬She's having it‭ ‬now‭?”

“Hush.‭” ‬If she wakes Judah she'll regret it.

“‬Abigail,‭” ‬I whisper.‭ ‬My younger daughter is awake,‭ ‬I can see the whites of her eyes gleam in the dark.‭ ‬She slides out of bed lengthwise so as not to touch her brother beside her,‭ ‬and I pull her with me out the door.‭ “‬Run and get me the cleanest rags from the bag,‭ ‬and the old blanket.‭ ‬And check how much water is in the water jars,‭ ‬and then join us in the back room.‭”

“The back room,‭ ‬Mother‭? ‬Is that where she'll...‭”

“We can't put her in the guestroom,‭ ‬there are people from wall to wall in there and they'd‭ ‬allwake—and I don't think she'd rather give birth out here in the courtyard.‭ ‬Do you‭?”


“Trust me,‭ ‬girl.‭ ‬A house full of chaos is‭ ‬nota better place to give birth than a barn.‭ ‬Now get back in there and get your sister out of bed,‭ ‬and don't wake anyone and don't let‭ ‬herwake anyone either.‭ ‬And remind her she's to run for the midwife,‭ ‬and then get me the rags.‭”

“Yes ma'am.‭” ‬Abigail goes.

‬I take a deep breath.‭ ‬I am alone in the courtyard.‭ ‬The air is clear and cool.‭ ‬The stars are bright.‭ ‬Oh God have mercy and don't let my husband wake.‭ ‬Make Tabitha hold her tongue for once...‭ ‬Help us now.

‬It will be all right.‭ ‬It has to be all right.‭ ‬What if it’s a girl‭? ‬Then I’ll know they lied...‭ ‬and so will Judah.‭ ‬And what will he do‭?

I take another deep breath.‭ ‬A low moan comes from the back room.‭ ‬Sshh,‭ ‬girl...What an unfair thing to have to say to a woman in labor.‭ ‬Time to go say it.

‬The midwife

So Tabitha,‭ ‬Judah and Rachel’s daughter,‭ ‬comes and wakes me right smack in the middle of the night,‭ ‬no closer to dawn than to sundown.‭ ‬Of course,‭ ‬it’s not the first time that’s happened‭; ‬I swear I’ve done every birth in this town for the last ten years,‭ ‬and there’s nothing more familiar to me than having a girl wake me yelling a woman’s name.

‬But Tabitha‭? ‬Honestly,‭ ‬that girl...‭ ‬She comes to me with no name‭! ‬Just,‭ “‬There’s a,‭ ‬a baby coming at our house...‭”

“A baby coming‭? ‬By‭ ‬itself‭?‬Who’s having it,‭ ‬you idiot‭?”

“My cousin’s wife...‭” ‬And then she looks down as if she’s ashamed that her cousin has a wife,‭ ‬of all things.‭ “‬They’re in town for the census.‭”

“What’s her name‭?”

“Miriam.‭” ‬She still doesn’t look up.‭ ‬Of course by this time I’m starting to get a feeling about this.


‭ “‬How close together are they‭? ‬Can you sit up‭? ‬Here...‭” ‬The midwife beckons me to slide my hips forward onto the torn blanket,‭ ‬and Joseph supports my shoulders as I try to push myself up on one arm.‭ ‬I inch myself forward,‭ ‬off our mat and onto the packed earth‭; ‬I can feel it through the thin blanket,‭ ‬rock-hard and unforgiving under the weight of my hips.‭ ‬A wave of power and pain passes from the core of my body down towards my legs.‭ ‬Or not power...‭ ‬power going out of me,‭ ‬not coming in,‭ ‬yet it doesn’t feel like my own at all.‭ ‬I have no power.‭ ‬I am breathing fast.‭ ‬Can I do this‭? ‬How much worse does it get‭? ‬Will there be room for him to come out,‭ ‬through that place where I have never been touched‭? ‬Will I tear‭?

When the angel came,‭ ‬there was strange light in the room,‭ ‬different from anything I knew.‭ ‬Like a color I'd never seen.‭ ‬It outlined everything so clearly—the kneading trough,‭ ‬the folds of my skirt on the ground around me,‭ ‬looked twice as real as they had ever been,‭ ‬almost alive...‭ ‬The light is gone now.‭ ‬Rachel and the midwife crouch beside me in the dark,‭ ‬whispering.

‬I know what they think.‭ ‬They can’t help it.‭ ‬The oil lamp flickers in a corner,‭ ‬a tiny flame that cannot banish the dark,‭ ‬and the dim forms of beasts move in the shadows.‭ ‬Sometimes I could wonder myself if I really saw that unreal light—that light more real than me...

‬Another pang grabs me and twists my body on the hard earth.‭ ‬Joseph’s hands on my shoulders grip harder and I can hear his whisper:‭ ‬Breathe...‭ ‬it’s all right Miriam...‭ ‬I’m here...I want to answer him somehow but all my breath is stolen.

‬I knew.‭ ‬The strange light and the strange voice,‭ ‬saying God was with me,‭ ‬God...‭ ‬I knew then that there was reason to fear.‭ ‬He told me not to,‭ ‬but he didn’t say I had nothing to fear.‭ ‬God’s favor,‭ ‬yes‭; ‬I know the stories,‭ ‬I know how it is with those on whom God’s favor rests.‭ ‬Hard earth and darkness,‭ ‬David in the caves and Jeremiah in the cistern,‭ ‬yes,‭ ‬and your husband's family all around you calling you a whore under their breath...‭ ‬God is with me.‭ ‬It’s His son they’ll call a bastard.‭ ‬I know.‭ ‬He knows.

‬Another pain is coming.‭ ‬I take a long slow breath in the huge dark.

The midwife

She's doing pretty well.‭ ‬Doesn't seem too scared.‭ ‬I've see plenty who thought they would die their first time‭; ‬and some that did.‭ ‬But she's doing well.

‬That young man of hers won't go away.‭ ‬I tried.‭ ‬Says he has to be here,‭ ‬whatever that means.‭ ‬Never seen such a pigheaded husband,‭ ‬and with a birth like this one too‭; ‬I guess he thinks that baby's his.‭ ‬Guess he wouldn't have married her otherwise.‭ ‬Heh.‭ ‬And nobody's better placed to know than he is.‭ ‬If he's right.

‬The pains are closer together now.‭ ‬As long as it's not too big,‭ ‬nor turned the wrong way,‭ ‬it should be a simple enough birth.‭ ‬She’s strong,‭ ‬and her hips are broad enough—not like Rachel’s but there aren’t many of those.‭ ‬I put my hand on her rock-hard belly as another pain runs through her.‭ ‬Twenty breaths from one to the next,‭ ‬and speeding up.‭ ‬There's a little light now through the chinks in the walls,‭ ‬getting on toward morning.‭ ‬She's doing well.

‭ ‬Abigail

This isn't right.‭ ‬My sister Tabitha is mean.‭ ‬I don't care whose the baby is,‭ ‬it's not the‭ ‬baby's fault‭! ‬But everyone acts like it just makes him bad,‭ ‬and he comes into the world in a barn smelling of dung and someone tells the midwife she needn't trouble herself for this kind of birth and the kids point at him and the women at the well whisper things about sinners and he doesn't know why,‭ ‬and then when he's old enough he finally figures it out.‭ ‬And what did‭ ‬he do‭?

She's lying on the floor beside the empty manger,‭ ‬with only the torn blanket under her,‭ ‬and her husband sitting there against the wall kind of trying to cradle her head on his lap.‭ ‬He looks so tired.‭ ‬Dead tired.‭ ‬He's been here a long time with her.‭ ‬My mother says men shouldn't be allowed in a birthing-room,‭ ‬there's nothing men hate more than when there's nothing they can do.

‬The ox at the other manger shifts his hindquarters a little and drops a mound of dung.‭ ‬Joseph glances over at it but that's all.‭ ‬Miriam is grunting in pain again; she's stiff, and her neck is shiny with sweat.‭ ‬Joseph reaches down and starts to rub her shoulders,‭ ‬slowly.

‭ ‬Just look at those two.‭ ‬I don't believe what they said at the well.‭ ‬I don't.

‭ “‬He’s coming‭!”


Joseph lifts his weary eyes.‭ “‬It’s going to be a boy.‭ ‬Ask Rachel what I told her.‭”

“Push,‭ ‬Miriam.‭ ‬This is it.‭”


“Shh...‭ ‬not so loud...‭”

“I‭ ‬am...‭ ‬pushing,‭ ‬you...‭”

“You’ll be all right,‭ ‬Miriam,‭ ‬I know you will,‭ ‬He promised...‭”

Miriam’s eyes flash up at Joseph,‭ ‬suddenly wild,‭ ‬though all that comes out of her mouth is‭ “‬Aaanh...‭” ‬The midwife is holding out her hands between Miriam’s legs,‭ ‬ready for the tiny head already showing darkly through the blood.

“‬She’s tearing.‭ ‬Rachel,‭ ‬hand me a rag...‭”

“She can’t be tearing‭ ‬yet‭—”

“Don’t tell me what I‭ ‬see‭! ‬Hand me a rag‭!”


“No wait,‭ ‬you hold the rag.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬see where she’s bleeding.‭ ‬Put it there and push hard against it,‭ ‬not‭ ‬towards the baby,‭ ‬that way.‭ ‬Have to stop the bleeding.‭ ‬There—there‭—‬now,‭ ‬Miriam‭! ‬PUSH‭!”

The head is coming,‭ ‬slipping viscously out into the midwife’s waiting hands,‭ ‬the dark hair wet with slime and blood.‭ ‬The hands turn gently as the shoulders follow quickly...‭ ‬Silence,‭ ‬no one breathing as they watch,‭ ‬Miriam hard as rock and silent now with the power that is washing through her,‭ ‬pushing,‭ ‬until the midwife calls out.‭ “‬Here it is‭!”

A tiny wrinkled thing,‭ ‬red and slippery‭; ‬eyes screwed shut against the darkness,‭ ‬wailing with new-found fear in the midwife’s capable hands.‭ “‬More rags,‭” ‬she says.


She’s wiped it and put it in my hands and it’s breathing,‭ ‬crying now,‭ ‬and it’s a boy,‭ ‬thank God when Judah wakes I can tell him it’s a boy.‭ ‬I may never know now if they lied or not but it doesn’t matter,‭ ‬at least God preserved us from‭ ‬that.‭ ‬And Tabitha’s back in bed,‭ ‬thank goodness,‭ ‬she won’t make any trouble.‭ ‬The poor girl looks exhausted.‭ ‬I hope she hasn’t lost too much blood.‭ ‬And Joseph.‭ ‬Look at his eyes on that child.‭ ‬You’d think he’d never set eyes on a baby before,‭ ‬poor boy.‭ ‬You’d think it was—oh,‭ ‬I don’t know...‭ ‬I hope it’s really his...


The last push ends and my body lets go,‭ ‬limp,‭ ‬emptied of power.‭ ‬There is nothing.‭ ‬Only the dark drawn close around me,‭ ‬a silent embrace above the small and distant chaos of voices.‭ ‬Am I dying‭? ‬The angel promised the boy’s life,‭ ‬not mine,‭ ‬Joseph,‭ ‬not mine...‭ ‬No.‭ ‬I am not dying,‭ ‬just far away.‭ ‬Voices.‭ ‬It’s a boy.‭ ‬What,‭ ‬are they‭ ‬surprised...‭ ‬There’s Joseph’s voice:‭ “‬I know.‭” ‬Of course he knows.‭ ‬Waves of red in front of my eyes.‭ ‬Where am I‭?

“Are you all right,‭ ‬Miriam‭?”

My voice does not come.‭ ‬Yes.‭ ‬No.‭ ‬I am somewhere.‭ ‬Not here.

“‬You’ve got a fine healthy boy.‭”

“Breathe,‭ ‬Miriam.‭”

The air is alive around me,‭ ‬the warm dung-smelling dark,‭ ‬coming into me‭; ‬I am alive.‭ ‬I still see nothing.‭ ‬I am here,‭ ‬in Judah’s house in Bethlehem.‭ ‬Beside Judah’s ox.‭ ‬Joseph’s hands are under my head,‭ ‬the hard earth is under my body,‭ ‬I can see now:‭ ‬Joseph’s face above me and the shadowed outline of his smile.‭ ‬The sky is paling beyond the doorway‭; ‬dawn is almost here.‭ ‬Rachel is standing over me,‭ ‬wrapping the baby.‭ ‬The baby.‭ ‬The promise.‭ ‬My first—alive,‭ ‬and a boy,‭ ‬and healthy.‭ ‬Not a bastard,‭ ‬God knows.‭ ‬God knows...

‬The sky is lighting slowly,‭ ‬growing pale behind the long gray clouds.‭ ‬Rachel puts my son in my arms.‭ ‬The sun catches the clouds from underneath and they shout glory.‭ ‬He is born.

‬Listen to him cry.‭ ‬Strong.‭ ‬And I already know what to name him.

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