Mary slipped into the small space between the neighbor’s house and the wooden slats of the fence that penned the goats. There was a recess there and a small depression in the ground where she could kneel, unseen, and spy through the narrow gaps in the fence. No one else knew of this place. It was her own secret hiding place. A place so secret that she could be sure the others would give up without finding her. She’d used it for years whenever she felt the need to be alone. It annoyed her deeply when, a moment later, Thomas came sliding through the dust into her secret place and knelt right next to her, touching her, all sweaty and smelling of it. His hot breath wafted over her and she pushed him away.
“What are you doing?” She whispered hoarsely.
“Hiding.” He answered smiling at her in the strange way he had lately developed.
“Well, get out. This is my hiding place.”
“Can’t you share? If I get out now, they’ll find us.”
He was right. The children of the village were just coming around the corner of the house with Evelyn, Mary’s best friend, leading them in the hunt.
Mary turned to Thomas to shush him and caught him looking down the loose fitting neck of the dress she wore. She slapped him on the shoulder and pushed him away.
“Sorry.” He whined. “I couldn’t help it. Your… you’ve changed so much this year.”
She kicked at him. “Get out!” She whispered too loudly, sounding deeply offended. Inside she wasn’t. Perhaps she should be, but truthfully she was flattered by his attentions.
“There you are!” Evelyn called from the other side of the fence.
Mary kicked at Thomas again. “Get out!” she said, this time in full voice.
The best hiding place in all of Nazareth was now discovered, never to be of use again. The children laughed and giggled when they saw Mary and Thomas crawl out from the small space. They ran off screaming with glee as Thomas chased them through the village. Mary brushed the dust from her dress. She and Evelyn began walking to her house, across the village square.
“I think he likes you.” Evelyn suggested.
“Thomas?” Mary quipped. “He’s such a child.”
They were passing the home of Joseph, the carpenter. He was working in the courtyard there. He looked up as the girls passed by, his eyes were fixed on Mary who had, in Thomas’ defense, grown into quite an attractive young woman.
“What about him, Joseph?” Evelyn asked. “He likes you too. I can see it in his eyes.”
Mary blushed. “The carpenter? He’s too old. He doesn’t know that I exist.”
Secretly, she had seen him looking at her. She had seen him smile and been aware of his notice for some time now. Mary was both frightened and excited by his attentions. He was, in fact, the most eligible bachelor in Nazareth and for miles around.
“Don’t despise his notice, Mary. There are many women who would give much for the attention he pays you. I think he’s cute.”
“Cute?” Mary frowned.
He was, actually, more handsome than “cute”. At twenty eight, he was strong and tall. Well kept and the best carpenter in all of Galilee. Thinking of him made Mary feel strangely warm. She fanned herself as they passed from his sight. Turning to Evelyn she said, “Do you really think he likes me?”
It should not have been surprising to Mary, when at the end of her fourteenth winter, her mother and father sat her down and told her that Joseph had asked her hand and they had promised her to him.
“You will be betrothed to him at the new year.” Her father concluded. Though he smiled, there was a subtle sadness in his eyes as he spoke.
Mary was stunned. She couldn’t speak at all. She couldn’t think what to say. A month ago she was playing hide and seek with the children of the village and suddenly she is a woman, given in marriage, bound to leave her home, to leave her childhood behind and go with a man she hardly knew. It was all too overwhelming. Her tears overflowed as she ran from the table and collapsed, sobbing, on her bedding. Her mother came to comfort her and they talked into the night. But the next morning Mary rose early and went to the small space between the neighbors house and the fence. Her secret hiding place. She remained there alone, praying, for most of the morning, though she heard her parents and others in the village calling for her.
Sometime after the third hour, Thomas stuck his head into the small space and seeing her said, “There you are. The whole village is looking for you.”
“Go away, Thomas. Leave me alone to pray.”
“What’s wrong, Mary?”
Tears began to stream down her cheeks again. When she didn’t answer, Thomas pushed his way into the small space next to her.
“Don’t touch me!” She barked at him. “I’ve been promised.”
Thomas was speechless for a moment. A thousand thoughts passed through his brain, but he had no idea what to say.
“To whom?” He finally managed to croak.
“Joseph, the carpenter.”
They both sat in silence.
Finally, Mary spoke. “I should be happy.”
Again silence between them. Something caught in Thomas’ throat. It choked him. All his muscles went taught as he tried to hold back the tears and stifle the sob that gripped his diaphragm.
“I am happy. At least I think I will be. It’s just that…. ”
Suddenly Thomas bolted from the hiding place and ran off.
Mary took a deep breath and sat quiet for a moment. She came to realize, as Thomas already had, that childhood was ended now and life seldom turns out as we imagine it. She finished praying, “…and thy will be done, Lord, not my own. May our lives be as you see fit, oh Lord, my God.”
It had not been easy for Joseph to ask. He felt awkward in arranging his own marriage, to say the least. These things, the shiddukhin, the mohar, shiluhim and ketubah are most often arranged by one’s father. But Joseph’s father had passed away long ago, and his mother more recently. He was left on his own to make the arrangements and he could see that Mary’s father, Joachim, a shepherd by trade, was uncomfortable in their negotiation. It seemed too modern, against tradition, maybe even unscriptural, which was far from their intent.
It wasn’t that Joachim thought Joseph an inappropriate match for his daughter. Indeed, he was thrilled by the prospect. Joseph would be a welcome addition to their family. It’s just that he didn’t feel he had a good bargaining position, dealing directly with the groom for the mohar, (the bride price) He was embarrassed that he could offer no substantial dowry, (the shiluhim). They were not a wealthy family. If they were they would not be living in Nazareth, and also, Joachim wasn’t sure he was ready to give his daughter up in marriage. To him she was a bit young, still a little girl. His little girl, to be most accurate.
For Joseph, he’d placed no importance on the shiluhim. Mary was enough of a prize for him. He’d watched her grow into a woman. He knew her to be obedient to both her father and the Lord. She was a very hard worker, and brave, but also playful. She had learned well from her mother to cook and keep a home. Beyond all this, Mary was a stunning beauty and desirable to every man who saw her. Joseph had been prepared to offer a significant mohar, (bride price), but Joachim had asked only one thing.
“She is still a young one.” He suggested, nervously. “I know that it is much to ask, but, more than money, I would ask that, since your own father has passed away, you would allow me in his stead to determine the time for nisu’in, (the nuptials). I know that this is not the tradition, but I beg your indulgence. And, when you do lie together in the huppah, I beg you be gentle with her and consider her youth. It seemed a strange request to Joseph, but easily enough promised. He was in no hurry in that regard; at least not that he would be willing to admit.
In spite of the promise Joachim had extracted from him, Joseph still intended to pay the mohar. In addition he planned to surprise Mary with a special mattan, (a love gift), to let her know the feelings he held in his heart for her. He was concerned that, because of their age difference, Mary might think he had only asked for her because he needed a young woman to work hard for him, care for his home, and to bare him sons so that he could rest in years to come. He wanted Mary to know that, in his heart, she was much more than that to him and that his feelings for her ran very deep.
Their kiddushin, (betrothal ceremony), was to be held at the synagogue in Cana, not far from Nazareth. The synagog in Cana was commonly used for such events, hosted by ceremonial professionals. While Mary and her mother made arrangements for food, wine and guests to attend, Joachim worried about the expenses. He and Joseph selected the witnesses and worked out the ketuba, (marriage contract), with the help of the rabbi there. Once that was done, Joseph slipped away to the market in Capurnaum where he purchased rings and the mattan for Mary, a beautifully decorated havdalah set. He was certain that she would be thrilled by it. It wasn’t many weeks before Mary and Joseph stood together at Cana, under the chuppah and recited the seven blessings.
“Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe who has created the fruit of the vine.
Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has created all things for His glory.
Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the universe, creator of man.
Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the universe who hast made man in His image, after His likeness, and hast prepared for him, out of his very self, a perpetual fabric.
Blessed art thou, O Lord, creator of man. May she who is barren be exceedingly glad and rejoice when her children are united in her midst in joy. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who makes Zion joyful though her children. O Lord, make these beloved companions greatly rejoice even as Thou didst rejoice Thy creation in the Garden of Eden as of old.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord, King of the universe, who has created joy and gladness, bridegroom and bride, mirth and exultation, pleasure and delight, love, brotherhood, peace and fellowship. Soon may there be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the jubilant voice of bridegrooms from their canopies, and of youths from their feasts of song.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who makest the bridegroom to rejoice with the bride.”
Joseph and Mary raised the cup and drank from it, before receiving the rings that Joseph had bought. The Rabbi read the katubah and the guests were served a traditional meal along with a meager supply of the cheapest wine, all that Joachim could afford. The master of the feast had been openly insulting, screwing his face up in a bitter display when he’d tasted the vintage. It broke Mary’s heart to see her father treated that way. In spite of its poor quality it was soon consumed by their gluttonous guests and as if the poor quality of the wine were not enough, there was nothing held in reserve. Mary was grieved further at hearing many of the guests complain. Some were openly insulting and left the banquet before the ceremony had ended.
At the end, Joseph presented his gift, the ornate havdalah set he had purchased secretly. Mary was speechless. Her eyes filled with tears. Joseph believed they were the result of her joy at seeing the mattan, but Mary knew, secretly, that they were more from the hurt she felt inside over the many insults her family had endured for the price of her betrothal.
In mid summer, Joseph worked in the heat of his courtyard making a table for the home he and Mary would share. Though he was stripped to the waist, sweat still trickled annoyingly through the forest of hairs that covered his chest. He was alone. He’d no one to carry water for him. Mary was still living at home with her mother and father. Joseph could only wonder how much longer it would be before Joachim would announce the time for their nuptuals. Joseph was a very patient man, but he was beginning to feel a certain desperation about his marriage. He loved Mary and wanted her to be with him in their own home. He wanted her to bare his children and he needed a partner to prepare his meals and, today, to carry water for him so that he would not have to stop his work and go to the well alone.
For decency’s sake, he donned his tunic before setting out. He’d not gone far before sighting Joachim coming from his house, and Mary with him. Joseph’s heart leapt for joy at seeing her, as it did each day when he saw her. Then it leapt again, anticipating Joachim’s announcement of the nuptuals. Joseph’s face brightened with a broad smile and he waved. He’d hardly noticed that his greeting was not returned, but as they drew closer he began to see the dower expression that dominated them both. At their approach, his own joyful expression began to fade, replaced by one of deep concern. Mary was pale, nearly faint. Joseph reached out for her but she drew back from him.
“Mary, what’s wrong?”
“We must speak.” Joachim said, coldly. “In private. Can we go to your house?”
“Of course.” Joseph answered, his mind scrambled through scenarios, wondering what could be so wrong, wondering if he might have done something to create such deep sadness in them. And was that anger he heard in Joachim’s tone?
They passed through the courtyard, walking by the unfinished table without a word. Once inside Joachim, holding too tightly to Mary’s wrist, declined to sit. He glared at Joseph. Tears filled his eyes and he shook, perhaps with rage. After a moment he jerked on Mary’s arm and thrust her toward Joseph, saying, “Tell him!”
Mary stood for a moment between them, alone. Her beautiful countenance, now ashen, folded into sadness. She covered her face with her hands and fell to her knees, sobbing before him.
“Please tell me to my face that you broke the promise you made to me.” Joachim said, his voice hoarse with emotion.
Joseph was stunned and confused. He’d no idea what Joachim meant, or what to say. He said nothing, but stood looking down at his beloved Mary, broken, on her knees before him. He felt anger growing inside from the pit of his stomach and began to consider forcefully removing Joachim from his house.
“She is with child!” Joachim cried out, a bit too loud.
Joseph felt a spear rammed through his chest. He staggered at the blow and himself collapsed to his knees. Joachim was stunned by Joseph’s reaction. His own hands flew to his face, clawing senselessly. A moment later he tore his tunic open, and looking to the sky, pounded his bare breast all the while silently begging for death. Then he reached down and slapped Mary, twice, hard, on the back of her head. When he drew back a third time, Joseph intervened, staying his hand. Mary fell on her face, sobbing uncontrollably.
Joachim cried out, a tortured cry, then again tore his tunic and fell to his knees sobbing.
“Please, O Lord. Please have mercy on me.” He cried out collapsing into a heap on the floor of Joseph’s front room.
Also on his knees, Joseph struggled with his own emotions. First, in denial, he reached out to Mary, but before his hands touched her, he drew back, repulsed and wounded by what he’d been told. After some time had passed, he said to her, “Who, Mary? Who has done this?”
Before she could answer, Joachim, prostrate on the floor, begged him, “Please have mercy, Joseph. Please don’t reveal this to the scribes. Please don’t have my daughter stoned. You can divorce her, send her away, but please have mercy on us.”
Joseph was again unable to speak through the knot that caught in his throat. He hadn’t yet given thought to the consequences of this news. Mary, hearing her father’s plea, began to wail.
Joseph took a deep breath and prayed quietly for The Lord’s mercy and strength. He immediately felt a calmness come over him. He was able, right away, to resolve that there would be no stoning. Such things were not in his heart, or within his capacity. He could not imagine himself casting the first stone at this woman-child whom he loved with every fiber of his being. Still, deeply hurt, he reached out and placed his hand softly on the back of Mary’s head.
“Who, Mary? How has this happened?”
She lifted her head and looked into his eyes. She held his gaze and he could see no guile in her. Mary pushed up to her knees and threw herself at Joseph, wrapping her arms around his neck and sobbing into his shoulder. He did not return her embrace, but he didn’t push her away. When she had calmed herself, she pulled back, looked into his eyes and said, “It is from the Lord.”
Joseph was stunned. Joachim pushed himself up to his knees and said, “This is the same that she told me. I thought she was lying for your benefit.”
“No.” Mary said to him. “I lie for no one. This child within me is from the Lord.”
Mary then related the story of the angel’s visit that had come to her just a few weeks before. Of the words he’d spoken, of her vision and her sleep.
“I am to call the baby, “Jesus”. She concluded.
Joseph could barely take it all in. He wondered if her story might be true, but he thought more that, in her youth and innocence, she had pushed the facts from her mind and replaced them with this fable. He was at a complete loss for what to do.
“Leave me.” He said quietly.
He took Mary gently by her shoulders and, pushing her away, repeated his request.
“Leave me. Both of you. I must have time to think. I must pray for wisdom.”
Joseph spent the rest of the day on his knees alternating between prayer and angry self pity. He felt like a child whose emotions were blown in every direction by a fierce wind. At one moment his heart was filled with sadness and grieving over the loss of his bride, and next he was filled with rage and desiring satisfaction from whomever it was that had lain with her. After many hours of prayer he’d resolved nothing. The gates of wisdom remained closed and barred, his pleas for help ignored until, each day after working himself to exhaustion, he fell asleep.
Many months passed while Joseph thrashed with his dilemma. He wavered still, between anger and mercy. In that time Joachim had sent Mary away to live with her cousin, Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, in Bethany. Joseph now, more calmly, considered quietly divorcing her. His resolve faltered, however, each time he considered what her life would become as a divorced woman with child. The divorce would brand her publicly as an adulteress and her only choice of living after that would be a sentence worse than death. It was during this period of emotional struggle that the boy, Thomas, had come to his courtyard to inquire of Mary’s whereabouts. Joseph had frightened even himself when he’d grabbed the boy by his throat in a fit of jealous rage, thinking that he might be the one. He lifted the boy off the ground in his powerful grip and thought to kill him, but when he looked into the boy’s pleading eyes, he released him and apologized, but never spoke of Mary to him.
Later in that week the soldiers came to Nazareth and posted the Emperor’s edict in the village square. All males of age were to register for a tax, in the place of their birth. Joseph, being descended from David, would have to travel to Bethlehem, five days journey. He welcomed the excuse to leave Nazareth’s dusty streets and poor memories behind. He spent the rest of the day securing the house he’d lived in all his life. The house he’d inherited from his mother. The house he’d lovingly expanded and improved in preparation for his marriage so that he and Mary would have a place to raise their children. He gazed at the table he was making in the courtyard. He ran his hand back and forth over the finished surface, his eyes closed, his practiced fingers feeling even the slightest flaw. He prayed and then he brought the table inside where it would be safe from weather and and out of view of thieves while he was away.
That night as Joseph slept, exhausted, he was awakened by a swirling, spectral light that appeared in his room. Frightened, he pushed himself against the wall in a corner and huddled there while the swirling light resolved into a presence that was clearly angelic.
“Joseph, son of David.” An ethereal voice called to him.
Joseph cringed against the wall, afraid. His terror caused his breathing to stop as the angel spoke.
“Do not be afraid. Take Mary home with you, as you go. Do not divorce her for what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Having said this, the angel vanished with a suddenness that startled Joseph awake. He found himself soaked in sweat, wrapped in his bedding in the corner of the room. He thought for a moment that it had only been a terrifying dream, but it seemed more real than that. The more he thought of it the more real it became until he was certain that what he’d seen and heard was a vision from God, a visitation. Then he remembered what the angel had said, that they would call the boy, “Jesus”. That was the same name Mary had said the angel gave to her.
Joseph’s heart began to pound with excitement. At the first sign of light he rolled up his bedding and packed his tools along with the meager belongings he would need for his journey, loading them on the colt he kept. He took one last look around the small house and brushed his hand over the smooth top of the unfinished table. A breeze blew over the surrounding wall of the courtyard. There was a chill in the air that foretold the coming of winter as Joseph left his house behind. In the narrow street he led the small donkey to the house of Joachim and rousted he and Mary’s mother from their sleep. He spoke excitedly as he related to them the story of the angel’s visit. Then he bid them farewell, gave his blessing, and promised to travel to Bethany and take his wife, Mary, with him to Bethlehem.
Mary was startled by the unexpected knock on Zecharia’s tattered door. She placed the baby, John, Elizabeth’s first born, down in his cradle and turned to open the door. Brilliant light and cool air streamed through gaps in the crudely fashioned slats. Mary thought of Joseph, and the finely crafted doors that he had made. When she opened it the morning sun blinded her. She saw a tall man standing in front of her in silhouette, but she was blinded and could not see his face. She did not recognize him until he spoke. “Mary. It is I, Joseph, your husband.”
Mary threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around him, pressing her cheek to his chest as she began to cry for joy. He had come for her. She could hardly believe he had come. She’d thought she would never see him again. She had feared that he would just divorce her, or worse, accuse her, but here he was, her husband, Joseph. He’d come for her at last.
Joseph’s chest convulsed as he sucked in the cool air. A tear escaped his eye and he held tight to her; this woman, this beautiful child, his wife. They stood that way, quiet, for a very long time. Just holding on to one another.
“Who is there?” Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth called from inside the small house.
“It is Joseph, my husband, Joseph.” Mary answered, her voice filled with excitement and emotion.
Elizabeth came quickly into the room and, smiling brightly, ushered them both inside. When they had settled, Mary chattered unceasingly, peppering him with questions about Nazareth and her parents, but Joseph fell silent. He could hardly take his eyes from his young wife’s swollen belly and breasts.
“You have grown large.” He said, smiling at her.
Mary hesitated, glancing nervously at Elizabeth.
“She bares this child well, with great beauty.” Elizabeth said.
“I will give birth soon and then my body will return to normal. I will be your wife. As it should be. I will be pleasing to you, Joseph.” Mary reassured him, her voice pleading.
Joseph smiled at her, a warm smile and said, “I am confident of you Mary, but we must travel to Bethlehem. Can you travel?”
Elizabeth spoke. “She is very close to her time. You should remain here, with us, until she gives birth.”
“Oh no.” Mary interceded, wanting desperately to please her husband.
“I can travel. We can go whenever you desire, husband.”
Elizabeth gave her a stern look. “Surely you can spend the night here.” She said, turning to Joseph.
Joseph nodded his assent and Elizabeth rose from her place to begin preparing a meal for them. Mary gave Joseph’s strong hand a squeeze before following after her older cousin.
Later, when they had eaten, Joseph told them both of the vision he’d been given in Nazareth and the words the angel had spoken concerning the child.
“So I know now that what you have told me of this child is true.”
Elizabeth’s eyes grew wide as he spoke. She remembered the power of the vision that had come to her husband, Zecharia, in the temple concerning John’s birth. She remembered the way the baby, John, had lept inside her at the sound of Mary’s voice when she’d first come to stay. Mary’s own eyes filled with tears of relief and vindication.
“The baby will be a boy and the angel instructed that we are to call his name, Jesus.” Joseph concluded.
At these words, both Mary and Elizabeth gasped with wonder and they all fell into prayer, praising God for all that he was doing in their lives.
The journey to Bethlehem was arduous. The country round about was rocky and the road winding, with many steep hills. Though the distance was short, navigating the rough roads with all their possessions and Mary near due was slow and difficult. Mary was showing signs of the strain early on. She rode atop the colt most of the way. But the animal was a small one and protested its load with regular stops, refusing to go further without rest. There were many delays and, though she hid it well, Mary was feeling small twinges inside, warning signs that birth was eminent.
“Where will we stay in Bethlehem, Joseph?” She asked.
“Do you have family there?”
“There is an inn. We will spend the night there.”
Mary had never stayed at an inn. There was one in Capernaum. She had seen it once or twice, but she had never been inside. All of this was new to her. Nothing was familiar. New places, her new husband, giving birth, it was all a bit overwhelming. She felt so alone and couldn’t stop the tears that streamed down her cheeks as she sat silent on the back of the small beast. She hoped Joseph would not notice.
Joseph was a bit overwhelmed himself. The road was crowded with pedestrians making their way to or from Jerusalem as they traveled from every part of the far-flung Roman Empire. All, like himself, returning to the places of their birth to register for the tax. They were reminded several times of the power of the empire as they were forced off the road by passing squads of soldiers on horseback and on foot. It took most of the rest of the day for them to complete their journey. It was nearly dark when they at last arrived at the inn just inside the gate at Bethlehem. The setting sun had brought a chill wind. Mary wrapped herself in a shawl before Joseph helped her down from the beast. She cried out in distress when her feet hit the hard ground. She felt a stream of warm fluid flow down the inside of her legs.
“Oh, Joseph! The baby comes!”
Mary’s soft features twisted into a mask pain as a strong contraction gripped her small frame.
Joseph wrapped his arm around her and helped her to walk to the door of the inn. He knocked on the rough wooden exterior. He couldn’t help but notice it’s shoddy workmanship. A moment later it opened just enough for a heavy set man with stoney features and piercing eyes to stick his head through the opening.
“We’re full!” He said, abruptly.
The door closed before Joseph could think to speak. He knocked again and the door opened immediately, a bit wider this time, but the inn-keeper stepped up to block the way with his corporeal mass. He spoke more forcefully this time. “We are full! There are no rooms!”
“But, sir. My wife is with child and she is about to give birth.” Joseph interrupted.
There was a hint of panic in his voice and demeanor. Mary held her breath and flushed a bit at hearing him say the words, “my wife”. She’d not heard them before. The words brought her comfort. The inn keeper hesitated, looking into Mary’s soft, but pained expression.
“Right now?” The inn keeper asked.
“Yes!” Mary cried.
“I can feel the baby coming!”
The inn keeper hesitated, looking first at Mary as she held tightly to her swollen stomach and then at Joseph. His glare softened.
“There are no rooms.” He repeated, softer now. “But the stable, below, is empty. It can be made warm. You can stay the night there.”
He came out, closing the door behind him and led them around the back of the inn to the stable which occupied a small space below. A natural, cave-like shelter upon which the inn had been constructed.
“Make yourselves comfortable here. There is plenty of hay. I will have my wife come with a lamp as soon as she has finished serving our guests. You can build fire then. Perhaps she can help with the birth also.”
The inn keeper indicated one of the piles of hay and some split wood near a place for a small fire then he hurriedly left them. Mary whimpered as Joseph settled the colt and pulled the bedding down from its back. He stuffed it with hay and arranged a place near the small fire pit for Mary to recline.
At the same time, not more than a stone’s throw from the inn, Heli, one of the local shepherd boys sat in a broad field of grass watching the sunset. As the sun faded behind the rocky hills a radiant display of brilliant amber, pink, and finally deep purples, faded to a twinkling carpet of stars that filled the sky above. With the sheep safely huddled in their walled pens, he lay back taking in the wonder of it all. He spent most nights out here, bored, dreaming of life in some other place. A life of adventure, perhaps as a king, like David who had been born here in Bethlehem, a small village now, but it had known better days. Later he would join the other sheepmen and their nightly stories at the fire, but right now he wanted to be left alone to dream his own dreams.
Heli closed his eyes and began to drift off, hearing the faint strains of music floating across the field from the inn that lay just beyond the rise behind him. He was at the edge of a dream when he was suddenly consumed by a sense of presence very near him. It was so powerful that it raised the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck. He opened his eyes expecting to find someone standing over him but all he saw was the blanket of stars in the sky far above. The brilliant display made him wonder about the Lord who had created all of this.
Heli had lived as a jew all his young life, practicing his faith under his father’s instruction, but with little commitment. The traditions of God’s miraculous power in the lives of his people seemed something from a distant and mythical past. The promises of the profits were, to Heli, children’s tales told at bedtime by old men. The reality of life for Heli and everyone he knew was the crushing power of Roman occupation, the oppression of the temple priests and of Herod’s tax collectors. Heli’s heroes were the zealots that rebelled against all authority. Young men who lived by the dagger and their wits in the remote hills around Jerusalem. They were his hope for the future.
Heli shivered and sat up quickly. His sense of some presence had grown stronger within him. He looked around himself in the dark and worried that he might be watched by something, a wolf, or perhaps worse, a lion; some were rumored to still wander in the hills. In the distance, near the sheep pens, he could see the shepherds fire. The others were gathered around it, talking and keeping warm. Nervous about this feeling of being watched, he went to join them. All the way across the field a sense that he was being followed made him want to break and run.
Heli had no sooner entered the circle of light cast by the fire than he was frozen in his tracks by the sound of a woman’s screams piercing the darkness from the direction of the inn. The conversation at the fire fell silent and the other shepherds looked up, peering past him into the darkness beyond. As Heli began to turn in order to see what had riveted their attention, he was blinded by a brilliant flash of light. He fell to his knees, covering his eyes with his hands, expecting to be struck by something powerful. Instead, a watery voice spoke directly into his ear.
“Do not be afraid for I come to you with word from the Lord, your God.”
At this, Heli dared to spread his fingers and look through them. There, in front of him stood a presence of light in the form of a man that could only be an angel of the Lord. Heli prostrated himself before the presence, pressing his face to the ground. The others sat by the fire, frozen with fear. Again the watery voice spoke, this time so that all could hear.
“Do not be afraid for I bring you tidings of great joy that will be for you to share with all people. At this very moment in Bethlehem, the town of David, a savior has been born to you. He is the long awaited Messiah. You will find him, a babe, wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger. You must watch over him as you watch over your own sheep. Go now and seek him out.”
As Heli looked up he saw a great number of the heavenly beings and they all began to praise God saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to all men for it is mankind with whom God’s favor rests.”
Very far from Bethlehem, the piercing sound of a woman’s screaming caused Herod’s eyes to burst open and he sprang upright on his divan. His heart pounded with fear and sweat covered him as the nightmare faded from his consciousness. His guards stood silent, unmoving at his chamber door, as if nothing had happened.
“Who screamed?” He demanded of them.
The two came to attention as one. They both glanced at one another before the senior answered.
“We heard nothing, sire.”
“Are you deaf? I was awakened by a woman’s scream. Call for the captain of the guard!”
The junior rushed off to wake the captain. This would not turn out well for either of them. At the least the captain would be angry that he was, again, awakened in the middle of the night. There would be repercussions. Worse things had come lately as a result of the king’s madness. Philip, the senior guard, had himself participated in the execution of Herod’s sons, Alexandros and Aristobulos, just a few years before. They were sentenced to death by strangulation for no other reason than their succession to the throne had become politically inconvenient. The king’s mood and madness had grown worse since.
“What have you done now?” The captain grumbled as he hurried down the long hall with the junior guard.
“Nothing, sir. I swear to you. The king claims to have been awakened by a woman’s scream, but we heard nothing. I think the king suffers from nightmares again. We should call for the physician.”
When they arrived at the kings chamber, the captain, Vestus by name, moved ahead and groveled before Herod, hoping to appease him.
“Come close to me.” The king commanded.
Vestus stood erect and approached the king with humble caution. As he drew near he was overwhelmed by the smell of garlic and sweat infused with expensive perfumes, stale wine and the king’s necrotic breath.
“Who are these men you have assigned to my chamber?” The king inquired, whispering.
“They are trusted members of your personal guard, Your Highness.”
“Who trusts them, you? I want them removed from my presence, immediately.”
Frustrated again by the kings madness, the captain of the guard dismissed the two soldiers, telling them to take up positions outside the door. When he returned to the king’s side Herod asked, “Who was it that screamed?”
“I heard no one scream, Sire. Perhaps it was only a dream.”
Herod thought for a moment, but couldn’t drive the obsession from his thoughts. He grew testy and said, “It was no dream. A woman screamed. Are you also trying to deceive me?”
“Certainly not , Sire. I heard no one scream. Perhaps it came from elsewhere, outside, somewhere in the night.”
Again the king paused to think. He looked across the room, through the open balcony at the stars twinkling in the night. He could not shake the disturbed sense that filled his heart since hearing the scream, but he would not let on to these men who troubled him by their presence. Perhaps he would undertake to build another fortress. One where he could feel safe.
“Perhaps you are right.” He allowed, seeming to relax a bit.
“Shall I call for your servants?”
The king nodded that he should and Vestus turned to leave. As he did, Herod called to him.
“You are the only one I can trust, Vestus. You are like a son to me.”
Vestus smiled, but his heart tripped in his chest. The very worst condition one could find one’s self in while in the service of this king was to be thought of as a son, even if the relationship were only perceived in the king’s twisted mind; for everyone knew that the sons of Herod were not long lived.
On the same night, at the same moment, in a land distant from Herod’s palace at Masada, a bright meteor, born in the sign of Varak, (Aries), streaked across the sky from east to west. This event excited Larvandad’s study of the stars. After several hours of observations, he made a hasty diagram then hurried down from his rooftop for some rest before the coming dawn.
In the morning he rose later than intended. He scurried around gathering the things he would need, calling upon his servants to prepare for a journey. He would travel from his home in the city of Kum to consult with his colleagues, Hormisdas and Gushnasaph in the nearby town of Saveh. He would inquire what developments they had recently seen in the heavens and together the three of them would determine what meaning this event might have for the Persian people and their ruthless king, Orodes III.
Heli did not often make the trip to Jerusalem, but he had taken the charge of the angel to “watch over the child as he would his own sheep’ with a most serious intent. So it was on the fortieth day of the child’s birth, that he traveled to Jerusalem with the baby Jesus and his parents, Joseph the carpenter and his young wife Mary. They entered the city through the gate of the Essenes, and struggled through the teaming streets to the Temple. They entered into the court of gentiles there through the Tadi gate. Throughout the entire journey he had felt the power of this child’s presence in the same way he’d felt the angel’s presence in the field on the night that Mary gave birth. It was the same power and presence he’d felt at the inn when he and the other shepherds had found the child in the stable there, just as the angel had said they would. He could feel that presence now, in the midst of the pressing crowds that filled the temple.
Simeon sat where he had sat much of every day for many years awaiting God’s promise concerning the consolation of Israel. He was old now, though he hadn’t been when he’d begun this vigil. Today his quest was made difficult by the rude crowds that swarmed through the temple like tourists. This had been the way of things, trying his patience ever since the emperor’s decree. The temple and the streets of Jerusalem teemed with strangers and strange tongues. At his advanced age it was hard to know if it were the crowds he found disturbing or if he had just grown weary of it all, but whenever he considered staying home, abandoning the search, he could hear that voice in his ear; the voice of the Lord telling him to remain on task because he surely would not die without seeing first hand the Lord’s salvation. He stood up now and scanned the swirling throng of people, searching, ever searching for the One. He considered himself like the character of Greek myth, Diogenes of Senope, with his lamp, ever searching for an honest man.
A few paces away, a stout young man with a shepherd’s staff pushed his way rudely through the throng, moving toward Simeon. As he cleared the way before him, Simeon was roughly jostled by the retreating crowds. He backed into the stool he’d been sitting on, lost his footing and tumbled to the stone pavement of the courtyard. A complaint went out from the crowd and they opened a space around the old man who had fallen in their midst. As Simeon struggled to sit up he came face to face with the young, offending shepherd who leaned down apologetically and reached out for Simeons hand.
“How rude.” Simeon protested, taking the shepherd up on his offer.
“I am so sorry, father.” The young shepherd apologized with polite humility.
“It’s the crowds, father. I am trying to clear the way for this first born, that he might be presented to the Lord according to the law of Moses.”
The young man pulled Simeon to his feet as if he were a feather and when Simeon was standing erect, he saw the young woman behind the shepherd bearing the child in her arms. For the longest time the old man stood in silence, staring at the girl and the baby in her arms. He felt himself filled with the Holy Spirit, an experience familiar to him. The Spirit opened his eyes and he saw the aura of God resting on the child who slept. Tears filled the old man’s eyes and he reached out for the child. Without waking him, Mary passed the baby into Simeon’s waiting arms. He took the child gently to him and looking up, tears streaming down his face, he asked, “By what name is the child called?”
Joseph answered, “He is named Jesus, as the angels commanded.”
“He is Emmanuel, the Messiah of God.” Simeon answered and, at the sound of that name the child woke. His dark eyes immediately searched out the source, settling on Simeon and gazing deeply into the old man’s own, tired eyes. The baby smiled then and Simeon lifted him up to present him to Lord in consecration. He lifted his voice also and cried out,
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
At that, the crowds grew quiet and all eyes turned to the child Simeon was holding up before the Lord, and to Joseph and the baby’s young mother.
Anna, the prophetess, was not far from the place where Simeon stood. In spite of her advanced age, she heard Simeon’s declaration quite clearly. She knew him well, being also a fixture in the temple. In fact she lived now within its walls and had for many years. She was a prophetess and well known among the priests and the temple elders, those who were leaders among the Sanhedrin.
“Out of my way.” She said as she moved through the crowd toward the epicenter of Simeon’s declaration. She knew full well its meaning and she meant also to lay her eyes on the One who was Israel’s consolation. A moment later, as Simeon was returning the child to his mother, the crowd separated and Anna stepped into the open space that had formed around the baby Jesus and his parents. She gave a quick nod to Simeon who nodded in return and then she turned her attention to the child in Mary’s arms.
She smiled in her feeble way. Her bright, youthful looking eyes twinkled from within the deep wrinkles of an old woman’s face.
“The child’s name?” She asked, tursely.
“Jesus.” Both Mary and Joseph responded, not knowing who it was that asked.
“Hmmm.” Anna mumbled as she lifted her hand and placed it on the child’s forehead.
She closed her eyes and suddenly sucked in air, as if she’d been pierced. A moment later she began to moan and sing all at once. Then she quickly pulled her hand away. Her eyes burst open, wide and intense, and she looked deeply into Mary’s own eyes.
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be
spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”
Lifting her aged arms to the heavens she closed her eyes once again and shuddered. A tuneful moaning went out from her that could be heard over the sounds of the crowded courtyard. A vision came in which she saw the child’s death, as a man, at the hands of Roman conquerers, the manipulations of temple priests and the leaders of Israel. She was horrified by what she saw, but deep within the vision was the certain knowledge that this man’s death was Gods will and gift to all mankind. She saw that the child was born to die, a sacrifice for the sins of the people, the Lamb of God.
When she opened her eyes she looked into the face of the frightened girl who held the baby Jesus in her arms. Anna found that, for the first time in all her life, she could not speak the things she had seen. But she had both seen and felt the pain this young woman would feel one distant day to come. She could not help but to warn her and the words tumbled from her mouth unawares.
“And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” She heard herself say.
Mary gasped in horror. Her eyes quickly filled with tears. It hadn’t sounded like a blessing or even prophesy, but more like a curse. The old woman’s face turned ashen with regret and she quickly backed away into the crowd.
“Heli,” Joseph called, “we must go!”
Heli, snapping out of his shock, nodding once again in apology to Simeon and began pushing his way out of the temple, through the crushing crowds. Mary and Joseph with the baby, Jesus, fell in behind him, following in his wake.
On the road they walked together in silence until Mary had to go aside to nurse the child. She sat on a small patch of soft, green grass that grew in the midst of the surrounding rocky terrain.
When she had settled herself and provided for modesty, Joseph and Heli came to sit beside her. After several moments filled only with the sounds of the baby’s suckling, Mary asked. “What did she mean about the sword, Joseph?”
Joseph didn’t answer right away. He was still angry about the incident, but finally he said, “I’m not sure what she meant. It seems to me she’s just a mean, old woman. Bitter and childless.”
After a moment Mary said, “But many say she is a prophetess. Known and respected among the priests.”
“I too have heard that of her. She is called Anna, the daughter of Phanuel.” Heli agreed and the three fell silent again in their own thoughts.
When the baby had finished, and fallen asleep, they climbed back down to the road and resumed their journey to Bethlehem. It had been Mary’s idea to return there instead of Nazareth. She simply was not ready to face the scrutiny of her native village. The gossiping old women counting the months out on their fingers. The glaring scowls of disapproval. The horrible whispering accusations. She was not ready for that. She didn’t know if she ever would be, but she told Joseph it was the journey of five days that it would take to return to Nazareth that she was not ready for.
Joseph had agreed, understanding quietly that it was her fear of reproach as much as the long journey. This was the trait she had first come to love in him since their betrothal, his understanding heart. She had seen it in the way he comforted her over the wine incident at Cana, in his compassion at the announcement of her pregnancy, in his coming to Bethany to receive her, swollen with child. Time after time in their journey together Joseph had shown the depth of his love for her in patience and compassion. His skill as a carpenter had already brought them offers of work and a comfortable room at the inn. For now, the decision was made, Bethlehem would be their home.
Heli interrupted her thoughts. “The angel told us that the child would be our savior, the Messiah, the Lord. Surely he will be a great warrior, like King David. Surely he will crush our enemies under his foot. Perhaps he will die in battle. This may be what the old woman meant”
“She didn’t say that he would die.” Mary answered. “She said that I would.”
Joseph grimaced and turned away at the thought. After a moment he said, “She said that ‘a sword would pierce your own soul too’. It’s a metaphor, it’s not literal in meaning. She is saying that both you and the child would experience soul-wrenching emotional pain as a result of his destiny. Perhaps we will learn in time what destiny she means. Perhaps we will be able to avoid such suffering.”
His explanation brought on a period of quiet reflection in which both Joseph and Heli secretly committed themselves to being more protective of the baby, Jesus.
Mary rode in silence on the back of their colt while Joseph and Heli walked along the steep road to Bethlehem, one on either side of her. Joseph struggled with his role, projecting his thoughts into the future wondering how he could ever be adequate as the father of Christ. Worrying how he would teach the child, provide for him, protect him from the wickedness that prevailed in the world of men about them. Mary wondered at her role also, being the mother of Christ. Her thoughts reeled with all she had heard this day from both priest and prophetess. While she held on to those things deep in her heart, she looked down at the baby in her arms and thought about her simpler role as mother to this innocent, sleeping child. With these simpler thoughts in mind, Mary said, “Joseph. I’m afraid.”
Heli stopped in front of the colt and faced the two of them while Joseph gently placed his hand on Mary’s shoulder, looking into her eyes with deep concern.
“Don’t be afraid, Mary.” He said.
Heli smiled cheerfully and added, “That’s what the angel told us. ‘Do not be afraid for I bring you tidings of great joy’.”