"I write so that my handful of pebbles, cast into still waters, will create a ripple."

Monday, December 5, 2016

Joseph's Promise, A Christmas Story

The donkey’s small hoof clinked against a stone, sending a puff of dust over the man’s wooden sandals as he trudged the well-traveled ridge route to the small Jewish village of Bethlehem, his ancestral home. His thoughts wandered as far afield as his journey. He was not a wealthy man, even though his line claimed ancestry to the House of David—and through him, to another ancestor, Solomon—but his carpentry trade was adequate to support a growing family, thanks be to God.   
On the donkey’s back, a girl swayed from side-to-side, one hand clinging to the veil covering her dark hair. Her head sagged and she closed her eyes for a moment. Seventy miles, the journey, and so near the time of her delivery. The month-long journey had provided little time to rest, and few trees to shelter them from the full sun. When the donkey stumbled, the girl groaned, quickly biting her lip to check the sound. 
Her husband, Joseph, clenched the lead rope with a white-knuckle grip. He paused to brush a pebble from his sandal and straightened, scanning the trail for bandits or wild dogs. Satisfied that no danger threatened, he glanced at the setting sun and urged the donkey on. His ears caught the slight, almost inconsequential sound of his wife’s distress and his lips tightened in agony. “What is it, Little Mother?”
The girl offered a timid smile in response. “Husband, it is nothing. A tiny pain. God eases my burden.”
 Joseph growled his displeasure into the cowl of his cloak. “Wife, you should not be here. The Romans are cruel to demand this journey. I would have spared you this.” His husky voice barely concealed his displeasure, but he would not burden her with his fears. His thoughts returned to their predicament and he paled. “A tiny pain, you say?” He moved to stand beside her, concern in the lines that marked his face from years of desert living. Many years older than his young bride, he felt as insignificant as a grain of sand when he judged his worth against hers and the child she carried. The thought consumed him, night and day: Yahweh would never forgive him if anything happened on this difficult journey. That she suffered because of a Roman tyrant’s census to count Jewish heads filled him with despair. He lifted his hand to touch hers, but withdrew when he saw her eyes flutter closed. “Tell me what I should do,” he pleaded.
The girl, Mary, released her hold on the donkey to cradle his face between her hands. She buried her fingers in his thick, untrimmed beard, now tangled and filthy from dust and sweat, and Joseph felt the tension ease from his weary muscles. Her face held a look of gentle acceptance that made his fear seem inconsequential. It was impossible to fret when her quiet faith sustained them.
“You have done so much,” she murmured. “Yahweh is pleased with you, my husband.
Joseph returned to the trail, filled with resolve.
From behind, the jingling of bells and a shouted warning caused him to quickly tug his donkey to the side of the road. A caravan of camels trotted past, carrying strange-looking men in rich clothing. Their features marked them as foreigners, with their dark skin and almond-shaped eyes. Each was dressed distinctly, with turbans and long, flowing robes spun, it was said, by silk worms in the distant East. Even the camels were garbed in tassels and bells, with thick padded saddles trimmed in gold and magenta, colors that he had seen only in the Temple on the holiest of days. A supply caravan trailed behind, fifty camels led by servants in finely woven livery.  Joseph kept his eyes downcast as the soft grunts and dust clouds filled the air. Even Mary seemed entranced at the splendor.    
“Princes of the East,” he whispered. “I wonder what brings them to Judah?”
The mounted foreigners shared the trail without the pageantry and rudeness of other high officials that Joseph had encountered on this trip. More like scholars than soldiers, he observed.
Soon they were alone again. Many of the travelers had stopped to make camp on the outskirts of Jerusalem, five miles back, but Joseph hurried on. No matter that Mary tried to hide her pains, his mother-in-law, Anne, had told him what to expect and he knew that his wife’s time was near. As they had prepared to leave, Joachim, his father-in-law, pressed his hand with a deep, penetrating look of anguish for his daughter. He had wanted to share the secret the angel had brought, but a stern frown from his young wife reminded him of the angel’s warning of secrecy.  No one must know, not even Mary’s parents, the precious burden that their daughter carried.
“I should walk a bit and give the poor donkey a rest,” Mary offered.
“Keep your seat, Little Mother. His burden is nothing—like a single orange blossom. He doesn’t even know you are along.” Joseph’s gentle tone rang with humor.
“A single blossom? You have walked too long in the heat, my husband. I feel as laden as an orange tree ready for harvest.”
They shared gentle laughter. Mary took a tighter hold on the donkey’s stubby mane as the narrow trail opened onto a rocky field planted in olive groves. Ahead, scattered campfires twinkled in the distance.
Bethlehem,” Joseph murmured. Although the city of his birth, it had been many years since he had returned. In the clearness of the desert air the town seemed a stone’s throw away, but he had spent his life in the desert and he was not deceived. The hour would be late when they arrived, but he knew that Yahweh would provide a place for them. Still, a great stone would be rolled from his mind when he had Mary settled in a comfortable kahn; an inn provided for strangers would provide privacy and a midwife to attend the birth. He would sacrifice his cloak to the innkeeper as payment for his wife’s comfort, his beautiful cloak, its four blue tassels, one on each corner, stitched by his wife in preparation for this journey. This was what he had decided.
“I will find an inn,” he vowed, half to himself. His hand moved along the donkey’s neck and captured Mary’s small fingers. So young, he thought. So pure. So good. She had never once complained on this journey, even as she had accepted the shame and gossip that she suffered in Nazareth when her pregnancy became known. True, they had been engaged, considered as good as married in the Jewish way, but even he had doubted her. He shook his head to clear the torment, recalling the days and weeks of anguish he had spent wondering at Mary’s unexplained pregnancy when he had never laid with her. It was not until Yahweh sent the angel Gabriel to explain and to seek his          cooperation, that he was able to believe his Mary again.
When she returned from visiting her cousin Elizabeth, a journey of nearly a hundred miles, Mary, in her customary way, had seen his sorrow. There was nothing to forgive, she had insisted.
Although they had spoken of the matter, he had labored in his carpentry shop, trying with every pounding of his hammer to make sense of this matter. He spent long hours on his knees each night pleading to Yahweh for understanding while Mary slept alone in her small alcove. He prayed to be worthy to raise this unborn child who was his stepson, even though he was, himself, unworthy. He had descended from Solomon, who had sinned. Mary held the greater claim, descended from Nathan, who had not sinned. He prayed that he would be strong and worthy.       
As though she read his mind, Mary spoke. “A woman’s pain is like making a sacrifice at the Temple. It is my thanksgiving for the gift that Yahweh will bestow on us. I am glad to offer it—the pain.”
“Little Mother, it is obvious why Yahweh chose you from all time to carry His child.” As always, Joseph felt his knees weaken at the task he had been given. “He will provide a room for the birth,” he repeated.
The town had settled into sleep when the exhausted donkey limped down the cobblestone path. At the first inn, Joseph halted and knocked on a solid plank door. After several minutes a man appeared, his night garb illuminated by an olive-oil lamp in his hand.
“We have no room. Let a man sleep. Look about you. Do you think you’re the only travelers tonight with the need of a room?”
Joseph had pulled his cloak from his shoulders, in preparation for the exhange. Now he stood uncertainly, feeling the strain of disbelief that this could be happening. “But my wife. . . she is—”
The door slammed, rattling the lintel and the frame before Joseph could finish, and he turned back toward Mary, his eyes downcast in shame.
“Husband, you must not mind him.”
Joseph shook his head, feeling like a fool. He had never stayed at an inn before, had only heard tales from others of how to conduct himself. Of course the night was late and the inn keepers were sleeping. But surely Yahweh would provide a suitable place for His own son. Joseph must find it.
Turning to the next inn, he knocked again.
Down the small street he continued, knocking and being turned away from the khans where travelers overflowed into the crowded streets. No one wanted to hear about his pregnant wife. At the last inn, Joseph knocked louder than before. A shutter opened from above and a tired voice called down, “No room. Can’t you see the lamps are out? Go away.” Joseph stood, silent and troubled in the dark street. The innkeeper paused behind the half-closed shutter. He saw Mary and called, “Wait a moment.” Joseph heard the heavy bolt sliding in its holder and he knew that he had found a room. The innkeeper emerged and his eyes swept over Mary, who dozed atop the donkey. “Your wife is in late days.”
“Yes, we need a room. She will deliver soon. This is a special baby.” Joseph could say no more. His heart was thumping against his chest. Please, let it be here, he silently prayed. 
“I’m sorry. I have no room for even one small woman. If I did, I would give it to you. But there is a place. . . if you’re not particular. It’s warm and clean. And private.” The innkeeper glanced again at Mary.
“We’ll take it. Anything.” Joseph glanced about, hoping for a private home.
“There’s a small stable, a cave where I keep my animals. At the edge of town . . . over there.” The innkeeper pointed. “Use it with my blessing, and may Yahweh be with you.”
Mary woke to hear this last. “Yahweh is with us, always. It is good, husband. A stable. Let us go see.”
Joseph walked for several steps until he was out of the hearing of the innkeeper, who had already disappeared inside. He slung his cloak back over his shoulders, secretly glad for the warmth on this chilly night, but his ears still stung with the words of the innkeeper. “This is what Yahweh wants for his child? To be born in a stable? This child should be born in the richest house in the city. In the Temple, itself. We should go forth and present our situation to the people. Surely someone has been directed to give up their home for the birth of this God-child. A stable?” His voice was angry. There had been so little direction from the angel. No one had forewarned him of this journey, or his role in caring for the child. What was he to do? Surely Yahweh would be angered if he, Joseph of the House of David, could find nothing better than a stable among the lowest animals for His son. Tears of frustration gathered in his weary eyes. Not for Yahweh’s child, a stable. Never.
“Let us go and see. Do not worry, Husband.”
His heart filled with grief, Joseph silently led the donkey down the narrow street in the direction the innkeeper had pointed.
The stable was not hard to find. A group of men had camped nearby and their campfire lit the small enclosure burrowed into the limestone hill. Joseph halted, hopelessness stealing his speech.
“Shalom, pilgrim. Will you join us for a drink?” one of the rowdy men called, offering his chalice with a swagger.
Joseph shook his head and met the man’s gaze with a weary reply. “I think not. We must be on our way.”
The man glanced at Mary and scrambled to his feet. He stared for a long moment then half-turned toward where the others lay laughing and drinking on their cloaks and bed rolls.
“Come, let us leave our camp for these travelers. They have more need of it than we do.” Amid groans and complaints, he gathered their things and hurried his group away, their drunken sounds disappearing into the darkness.  
Joseph looked around. The cave was warm and sheltered from the night air and the animals lent a musky, not unwelcome aroma. Against his will, he decided to make camp. At least until he could locate a kinsman with a room to share. In their haste, the men had left a gourd filled with water, and the remains of a bird still sizzling on the fire spit. Silently, he helped Mary from the donkey and into the stable. Fresh forage was piled at one end, out of reach of an ass, and an ox quietly chewing its cud. To one side an empty feed crib lay overturned on the ground. Joseph straightened it and returned to unpack their bedding and supplies.
Mary drank water from the gourd. Wordlessly, they dined on the remains of the bird, the sheaves of unleavened bread that she kept wrapped in a linen cloth, and a few dates and figs they had purchased that day from a vendor near Jerusalem. Then Mary lay back to rest.
“Husband?” She murmured in a sleepy, sated voice.
“My spirit rejoices here. Do you feel it?”
“Yes, Little Mother, I feel it. Perhaps Yahweh wants us to rest here until someone offers their house. Some midwife, perhaps. We will wait here and see.” He turned to frown at the few lights that flickered in the darkened town while he chewed thoughtfully on a date.
Mary’s groan interrupted his silence. “Joseph. . . it is time.”
He struggled to his feet, looking frantically about for someone to assist in this most important birth. He was a clumsy carpenter, good with a hammer and adz, but not with his precious Mary’s birthing. In their village, the women assisted in the births. “I will go for help.”
Mary’s face was pale and exhausted, but filled with resolve. “Husband, there is no time. You will help me. Remember the angel Gabriel? All will go well, my husband. Yahweh chose you to be my midwife.”
Despite the chilliness of the night, sweat beaded his brow and dripped into his eyes. His hands trembled from fear. Thoughts tumbled over each other until, finally, he allowed himself to speak what was foremost on his mind. “You and I have not been together as man and wife. I have never seen you. . . in that way. You are a modest woman. A woman chosen by God. How am I to assist in such a . . . personal matter?”
“Husband . . . ask Yahweh to guide your hands. He will hear your prayers this night of all nights. He is with us in all ways.”
Mary’s quiet confidence seeped into his blood and he rushed to retrieve the rags she had packed for this hour, and the gourd of water waiting near the fire. He spread fresh straw for her bed and after that there was nothing for him to do but wait and pray.
Mary endured the pain of childbirth with peaceful acceptance while angels warmed the room with their fluttering wings.
Finally, trembling at the miracle he witnessed, Joseph gently placed a baby boy in her arms.   
The cave was lit with a glow more powerful than the mere oil lamp he carried. Joseph marveled at the aura of light that came from the Child, from its tiny naked body that Mary now worked to swaddle.
“Let me help you with that, Little Mother.” His huge, calloused hands seemed to have a will of their own as he quietly sponged the baby with warm oil then helped to wrap the swaddling cloth about the baby’s perfect limbs.
Mary watched her baby’s tiny arms thrashing as she secured the wrapping cloth. “My soul magnifies the Creator who has given me His son. Emmanuel. The angel said we were to name him Emmanuel. Oh, truly, Yahweh honors me with this precious gift.”
Mary’s weariness, her gladness lent softness to her face. Joseph, watching, felt great love for her. “Sleep now, Little Mother.” He smiled. “At last I can truly call you that.”
The hour was late when Joseph slipped outside to stir the fire, careful that no wild dogs hovered in the shadows. Inside, the ox softly lowed and moved against the side of the cave, its sweet animal scent mixing with that of the straw. Overhead, something drew his eyes up and he saw a star shining with blinding intensity against the blackness of the sky, until the star’s tail seemed to descend into the very cave itself—surely a sign from the Heavens that this was the most special of all nights.
In the distance, a caravan of camels advanced, illuminated by the star’s light. Behind them, lowly shepherds approached, struggling under the load of half-grown lambs they carried. Joseph stiffened and reached for the stout walking stick that accompanied him on this journey, for protection against wild animals and robbers. He retreated back inside the cave and stood protectively alongside his family while the caravan approached.
In the moments that he waited for the visitors, God’s presence filled the cave and he released his firm grip on his staff. Confidence swelled inside him, and humility. He prayed silently, a promise to serve in whatever humble manner was required of a carpenter poor in goods, but richer than the kings and wise men that were approaching.
Maybe the foreigners understood, for their servants carried ornate chests filled with gifts for the baby.  
Mary’s steadying voice assured him that she, too, felt the change. “It is good, husband. All of this.” She shifted her veil to cover her hair, careful that she was modest in all manner, but she spared no thought for her own vanity. “Who are they, Joseph?”    
Joseph shook his head. Important travelers, he thought. “Princes from the East. Magi,” he said aloud. 
He waited as they approached, and his greeting was firm and sure. “Shalom, my noble guests. You are welcome on this night of nights.” We have nothing to offer, he thought. And then he turned to where his guests were bowing to the child lying in the clean hay lining the feed crib. His eyes filled with tears and his hand gripped his staff while resolve filled his blood and the skies filled with the hosannas of the angels.
Tonight a king is born in a stable. He shook his head, dazed at the night’s events, for the ways of Yahweh were too wondrous to ponder. He was but a simple carpenter, a middle-aged man with little education. Why the Creator would choose the humble life that he, Joseph, could offer His son filled him with confusion. He gazed at his little family and his heart burst with love for mother and child.