They left their home, the new cradle still swinging from the rafters. Night after night the aroma of fresh-cut wood had filled the room as Joseph had patiently fashioned the tiny cradle, using the same chisel and saw he usually put down at dusk.
Now Joseph wiped the tears from Mary's cheeks and shut the door behind them. "It'll be okay," he told her, as he cinched up their belongings on the donkey.
"Joseph, can't we wait a few days? The baby could come any time." She didn't want to leave home. Not now.
"We've waited for the baby as long as we dare." He was ready to get on the road. "We have to leave today or I'll be arrested for not appearing in Bethlehem for the census."
"At least bring the cradle, Joseph," she pleaded. "I want the baby to have something nice."
"No, it'll have to stay behind. The baby will be rocking in it soon enough."
Joseph tugged hard at the donkey's halter. No luck. "Come on, animal," he shouted, whacking it on the rear end to get it moving. Grudgingly the donkey responded. With one hand Joseph led the donkey, with the other he steadied Mary on the steep incline, slowly enough to accommodate her ungainly progress down the winding road which led from Nazareth's height. In the house above, the cradle hung still.
Five days and ninety bone-weary miles later, Joseph searched the small stable where they were staying on the outskirts of crowded Bethlehem. Mary's time would be soon now. He was careful to keep his lamp from igniting the old straw. He finally settled on an ancient stone manger for the baby's bed, cut from the wall of the limestone cave which housed the animals. He reached in to scoop the last gritty bits of straw from the manger's dank bottom. "That'll have to do," he muttered. He filled the trough with an armful of fresh fodder, which he covered with a folded blanket to keep the animals away.
It was well past midnight by the time Mary finished washing and wrapping her new baby. Now she lifted him gently into his new bed. Joseph put his arm around her shoulders as they gazed at the sleeping infant.
Mary touched the tiny fingers. "That cradle you spent so much time on would be real nice right now, Joseph." She looked up at the cave's low ceiling. "You could hang it somewhere. No baby I know has a cradle like that. It's fit for a king."
Joseph grinned. "Not every boy has a carpenter for a dad," he said. But he wondered. Why couldn't little Jesus be home in that cradle? Why does this special child the angel told Mary and him about have to be born in this smelly stable? A hill-country carpenter's home is bad enough. Why here? Why Bethlehem?
The answer wasn't long in coming. An older boy poked his head in the door, startling the couple from their quiet moment. "Is there a baby in here?" he mumbled apologetically. Then he saw the tiny child. Mary picked her baby up to shield the infant from his eyes. The face disappeared.
Mary's eyes mirrored Joseph's concern. He strode to the cave's opening. He could hear a distant call, "Over here, Jake found him!" In the darkness, Joseph could make out a handful of forms coming toward him. He gripped his stout wooden staff and stood resolutely at the door.
As they approached the stable he could see they were shepherds. Joseph's grip on the staff tightened. The oldest one spoke hesitantly. "Can we come in? We have ... ah ... come to see the Christ-child."
Joseph glanced at Mary. He could feel a tingle move down his spine. This was more than an accident. The whole fantastic course of events was far more than an accident. He nodded and stepped back into the stable. "Yes, come in. You are welcome."
The shepherds shuffled into the cramped cave. The youngest pushed in alongside the donkey to get a better view. They knelt. "God be praised!" The old shepherd spoke with deepest reverence.
"It's just like the angel told us," another whispered in awe. "'Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people,' the angel said."
"Imagine! An angel . . . talking to us!" the old man interjected with rising excitement. "None of the uppity-ups in this town would lower themselves to talk to us shepherds," he added. "But an angel did . . . And the child is right here in a stable so we can come and see him." Rivulets of tears were inching down the shepherd's weathered face.
Joseph stared at the old man. "How did you find us?" he finally asked.
The boy who had first peeked in answered. "The angel said, 'Unto you is born ....'"
"Yes, to us!" The beaming old man couldn't contain himself.
The boy spoke deliberately, as if to remember the exact words: "Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior ..."
"That's here--Bethlehem--David's birthplace," the littlest boy interrupted. He thrust out his chest proudly. "King David was a shepherd, too, you know."
The older boy continued. " . . . a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
"The Christ, the Messiah . . . He's the one!" The old man pointed to the baby.
"The angel was very specific," the young man went on. "'And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.'" He grinned. "How could we miss? We just ran into town and checked every stable until we found you . . . found him." The boy paused. "How many newborns in Bethlehem do you know with a cattle manger for a cradle?"
Joseph chuckled. So that was it. The heavenly Father Himself had provided a bed for His child. A special cradle. A sign to these crude shepherds that God cared for them too.
Joseph squeezed Mary's hand very tightly.