The loveliest story ever told

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 26, 2001

This story happened a very long time ago in a place far, far away from here.

It's about a young couple, not even officially married and the teenage bride-to-be is already very much with child.

Imagine the snickering, whispers and sordid speculations going on in the little town of Nazarethwhat a delicious source of gossip!

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Of course, Joseph's been told all about the angelic visit and how his betrothed is going to bear the long-awaited Messiahnhis Mary, poor, uneducated, unremarkable in so many ways.

Has this dear girl lost her last marble?

Yet he still loves her.

He has no desire to publicly humiliate her or tonGod forbidnhave her stoned for her infidelity.

He'll break it off quietly, privatelynthat's the decent thing to do and Joseph may have his failings but he is a decent, God-fearing man.

Only he, too, receives an angelic visitation and is encouraged to proceed with the relationship. Mary is not mad, after allbut very, very blessed among all women.

They ignore and rise above the whispers and the looks and the espoused couple watches and waits as the child within Mary grows.

Oh, the deep things that untried teenager ponders in the night as she struggles to face each day with faith and courage.

Imagine traveling by donkey over rough, rocky hill and dale for miles and miles when you are nine months along and indeed "great with child."

Yet that is just what young Mary had to do when she and Joseph answered the summons of the Roman rulers over their land and journeyed to their ancestral city of Bethlehem for a census.

Mary must have been completely exhaustednthe bumpy ride, the long hours and the increasing discomfort as she drew close to her time would surely have been enough to wear any young woman down.

And then to arrive at their destination, Bethlehem, and to discover the normally sleepy little town's lodging was completely full, overrun with fellow disgruntled travelers taking part in Augustus' hated census.

Yes, the mood was likely less than friendly and cordial and the innkeepers wasted no time in booting the poorly dressed pair out and on to other possibilities.

What made that one innkeeper change his mind?

Was there a vein of kindness running through that mercenary's heart of his? Perhaps he was blessed with a gentle-hearted wife or daughter who couldn't fathom the thought of turning such a young, needy and obviously pregnant girl out into the cold, dark streets.