Thursday, December 24, 2015

Not A Silent Night

I wrote this in three different parts over the course of about two years. Two of them have been previously posted; one part has never seen the light of day. I now present them all together, as they are really intended. (It's ... long.)

*

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
(Luke 2:1-3)

The innkeeper had been swamped for the last few days. More than once he had turned away guests, and a couple of times he had nearly evicted others for their loud revelry. His own house was crowded with his in-laws. To tell the truth, he was just looking forward to the completion of the census so he could go back to his usual clientele of merchants passing through.

It wasn't just his inn; the whole town was crowded. The decree required that everyone return to their ancestral homes, which for many had meant long days of travel and a reception by family they hadn't seen in years. Sounds of family feasts and happy homecomings had been echoing down the city streets for the last few nights, a second harvest party for the year.

When a carpenter from Nazareth and his wife came from the direction of the only other inn in town, though, his hands were tied. They were different -- young, traveling alone, and she was very pregnant. The carpenter's family must have been long gone if they didn't have relatives with whom to stay, and the stress of the day was starting to show on the soon-to-be-father's face. His wife was still calm, but he knew the man would be hard-pressed to maintain his own calm if his wife went into labor before they were settled.

He did what he could -- there was no way he could turn away a couple in such need, if only because his wife would have his hide. A couple of cots in a stable stall wasn't much, but it was warm and dry and more than they were likely to find in the home of a stranger. Besides, the animals were quieter company than his other guests and the stable was close to his own house.

His wife brought them blankets and bedding. When she came back to the house, her mouth was set in a thin line -- the woman had just gone into labor, and she already knew for a fact that the town midwife had gone to her husband's village to register. She sent her husband scurrying for fresh hay while she gathered the clothes and blankets left over from their own last child and went back to the stable.

No first birth has ever been truly easy, but this young mother dealt well with the pain. Her husband was far more frantic until the moment the child arrived.

For the first time that night as the young mother held her baby, true calm settled over the stable. He was a beautiful child and surprisingly quiet. The innkeeper's wife would say for years that she was sure she saw the baby smile at her as she set him in his mother's arms.

As she slipped back the house to allow the little family some time to themselves, she was happier than she had been in months.

But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
(Luke 2:10-12)

It was calm among the herds. From their perches on the hillsides, the shepherds had watched the parties in town slowly die down as the night progressed. Their own herds were quiet, hunkering down as usual for the night. A couple of the shepherds had dozed off, vowing to take the second or third watches if they could just get some sleep right now.

One young shepherd was in his own little world. His older brothers had moved on from the herds; one of them was managing another man's lands while the other was married and settled in town, apprenticing to his carpenter father-in-law. On the other hand, as a shepherd, he was just getting started. He was at the bottom of the social chain and knew that if he wandered into town that evening to join the family party, he'd smell of livestock. It didn't matter -- he had work to do here -- but he couldn't shake the feeling that he really didn't have a place with those people.

When a dazzling figure in white appeared in the field, he thought for a moment that he was hallucinating.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
(Luke 2: 13-14)

They broke a cardinal rule: they all left the fields.

But when a chorus of heavenly angels tells you to go, you go, and you don't waste time. Following the directions the first angel had given they headed for the inn's stables. Sure enough, there amongst the animals were two adults and one tiny newborn.

The shepherds were quieted by the sight but the child's mother welcomed them warmly. She was calm with an air that she Knew Something, a fact the shepherds would discuss amongst themselves later. Under her watchful eyes, they knelt next to the tiny baby, taking him in and wondering what exactly this child would become, why it was that they were the first to know of his existence.

As they left, they couldn't contain their excitement over the night's events. They shouted the news, adding to the noise in town with a very different kind of joy.

When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
(Luke 2: 17-19)

The shepherds had been right: the baby's mother did, in fact, Know Something. She wasn't yet sure of where these things were going, but she knew her baby was special. He had been chosen for a specific purpose, and for some reason she had been chosen to take care of him.

She watched her husband as he held the baby and knew he had been carefully chosen as well. He was a godly man, but it wasn't every godly man that would have still married her after finding out she was pregnant, nor was it every man that would have accepted her explanation. During their long trek from Nazareth, he told her of a visit from an angel, much like her own story, and of his decision to stay with her. He had even talked of training the boy in his own profession, a sign to her that he was accepting him. Now, as she watched them together, she knew her husband had accepted this beautiful baby as his own.

It certainly wasn't going to be easy. It wasn't like they could pretend everything was normal. And the neighbors back home ... well, they were already talking about how she had been acting differently before their very quiet wedding. The census had almost been a relief; it made the math regarding her pregnancy much  more questionable and allowed her to give birth in a town where no one knew the circumstances.

Of course, the lack of a midwife or a room was unexpected, but it had worked out.

She found herself wondering how much of this her own son knew. Was he too gifted with an explanation from birth? Would he grow up knowing his purpose? Would it gradually come to him as he aged?

What on earth was she supposed to tell him when he was old enough to learn?

*



Her husband had no idea what he was supposed to do next.

Strictly speaking, he could treat this like any new parent. Learn to deal with the crying and the messes and the helplessness, look forward to a future where he could teach him everything he needed to know, including the family trade.

But he wasn't really a normal new parent.

Actually, nothing about this was anything like he'd pictured when he'd first considered getting married. He had watched his sisters for all these years as they were married off and started their own families, and as happy as they were he hadn’t really felt the urge to follow suit.

Until he met her. She was quiet and kind, her parents not shopping her around for a husband like the other girls in the neighborhood, her entire family warm and respectable. It didn’t take them long to accept him – a good businessman from a well-liked family of his own – and their brief courtship was nothing out of the ordinary.

But then … everything got strange.

He’d had a couple of dreams before she’d told him about the baby, dreams he couldn’t quite forget. The conversation itself was practically forbidden, but she had said this was something he needed to know. She even gave him an out, said he could call the whole thing off, knew it could damage his entire family.

He hadn’t been prepared for an angel.

And he certainly hadn’t expected to stick around. This just wasn’t how things were done.

Their wedding was much quieter than normal, lacking the usual feasts and hours of revelry. It was all the same to him; he’d been through this with all of his sisters while his father was still alive, and it just wasn’t the same now a few months after his mother’s passing. A quiet wedding was easier, especially with a baby on the way.

They had just settled into their home together when the census was announced.

Like everything else of his life in the previous year, he wasn’t prepared for this. He was hoping that they could make the trip after the baby was born, but no, his wife would be quite pregnant when the census came due. He hoped he could leave her with one of his sisters and make the trip alone, but they each had their own trips to make to their husbands’ ancestral homes. Eventually, she spoke up and said she would go along in any case and that arguing was futile.

He found himself wondering if married life would always be like this.

And so it was that they spent a week on the road in a knot of travelers from their village. He was thankful for the crowd, as he and his wife would be easy targets for highway robbers if they were alone. As it was, they were the slowest moving of the group and by the last couple of miles they were on their own.

Bethlehem was only his ancestral home; his own family had left a generation ago and he no longer knew anyone that lived there now. While it was customary for Jewish families to take in travelers, at a time like this most homes were filled with their own visiting relatives. As they made their way through town, he could hear the parties that came with families meeting for the first time in years and he figured their only chance was an inn. They were generally intended for passing merchants and the like, but for now he was willing to pay almost anything for a room where his wife could rest.

Only eight hours later, he was holding his son.

He wasn’t ready for this. Not this tiny, helpless human who seemed to be staring directly into his eyes with full knowledge of the situation. What was he going to say when the kid got older? How was he supposed to teach him, discipline him? What about when the kid hit puberty? If he started pointing out that he wasn’t his real dad, there wasn’t a lot he could do about it.

There was the other thing that was bothering him. His own dad had died when he was still a teenager, and he had no doubt his lifespan would be about the same length. As much as he had been told, as much as he had heard at the temple, he knew that if things were going to play out the way they were foretold – if his son was the Son – he wouldn’t live to see it.

He would never actually know if his work had paid off. He’d never know how this baby turned out.


After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
(Matthew 2:1-2)

This was not quite what he had expected.

It had been months since his boss had first mentioned the trip, entirely in passing. He and his colleagues had been watching the stars and saw a potential alignment, one that would rival previous events for rarity and brilliance. They had decided then to track it as far as they could, which would likely involve a few months' travel, and that was when his boss had approached him. Each man wanted to bring along a servant or apprentice -- a minimal crowd so they wouldn't lose speed but something commensurate with their standing -- and it was entirely optional. Months, maybe even years on the road, wouldn't be possible for all of them. In fact, one man who technically outranked him had passed on it as he had two children at home and another on the way.

And so it was when his boss approached him, he had to take a day to think it over. There was a girl in the village, one his parents wanted him to consider for marriage, and he knew leaving for several months would mean he'd have to start over with someone else when he returned. There was no way she would still be unmarried, given how many parents in the village were seeking mates for their children right then.

In the end, though, the lure of travel and loyalty to this man that had been teaching him for the last two years won, and he packed a few things and joined the other men.

He and the other apprentices mostly stuck together, occasionally taking watch shifts with the servant boys so that they could get some sleep. As far as they could tell, the sages rarely slept; they were charting courses when the group stopped moving, talking about what to expect and arguing over the customs in the lands they were passing through. They were learned men but that also meant they didn't always want to yield to the specialties of the others.

Somehow, though, they'd traveled quite far without any major problems. It seemed the western nomads were not bothered by these strange eastern men as long as they took from the land only what they needed that night, and people seemed hospitable enough in the villages they crossed. There were very few questions about the trunks they carried, which was probably for the better -- some of the men they met would have been much more interested in their contents if they were more aware.

What had really confused him and the other apprentices, though, was when the sages announced that they would be seeing a king. Two, in fact -- one of current standing, one that they believed had just been born. And when they met the current king, he called for a meeting with the sages alone -- no advisers, no servants, no apprentices.

This was not the behavior of a king who had just had a son.

They sat in a side room to wait. There was a flutter of anxious activity around them, the king's servants just as uncomfortable as their visitors. The hurried Hebrew from the servants was complete gibberish to their ears and aside from miming for water, they couldn't communicate or explain their presence.

In the meantime, they tried to piece things together. From the bits they had gathered from the sages, they knew that they believed the alignment had indicated the birth of a new monarch. When they had arrived, the apprentices had all assumed they'd be meeting a prince -- but it was clear both from the king's reaction and the lack of festivities that no such person was in being. Had they really traveled all this way for no reason? Were the months they'd been on the road wasted?

When the sages emerged, they were subdued. It was late in the day; all enthusiasm they'd had over the trip seemed drained. The apprentices and servants gathered silently and followed them out to the square, careful to bring along the trunks and nod their thanks for the water and fruit that the king's servants had offered. It wasn't until they were a distance from the palace near an inn that one of the sages suggested they take shelter there for the night.

Over a cold dinner of fruit, bread, and dried meat, one of the sages relayed a story the innkeeper had told of the census a few months before and how his inn had been filled with the members of one family for two full weeks. "Overstayed their welcome, those people -- so much wine!"

After they'd eaten, one of the sages explained. Their stop had been one to pay the proper respect to a reigning king, but when they asked where to find his son, the king-to-be, he had been confused.

When the servants were sent away, he had asked them dozens of questions -- at first the simple whats and wheres of their trip, but then more about his own land's prophecy. They were baffled by this -- surely the king would know what was foretold for his own kingdom.

This, however, seemed to be a forgotten piece of Hebrew faith, and the sages found themselves sent away with instructions to return once they'd found the prince.

There was no rest that night.

He found himself reevaluating. The confusion of the previous months was nothing compared to what he felt now as he listened to the sages argue into the night. They had checked and rechecked their charts, fought about a new course of action, and were now on the inn's roof to watch the alignment again.

He and the other apprentices were arguing as well. While they had traveled most of those months in peace, they were now divided. Those that had been studying the longest were the most certain that the sages would find the right course of action and that they were there for a reason; the others thought they had wasted most of a year. He wasn't the only one that had left a girl behind and two of the others had even left wives.

The morning was a long time coming. A couple of them nodded off eventually, but the others were unable to relax and by dawn had already packed all the trunks again. They ate, and soon the sages appeared and with renewed energy led them away.

They were headed to another town. Somehow, they had restored peace among them and were in agreement -- they were certain of what they'd find that day.

Which is what brought him to his ultimate confusion.

The sages had gone on ahead -- and when they caught up, they found them with a young family. The mother was maybe the age of his younger sister, the father older and looking strangely sad. The baby, a few months old with clear, bright eyes, was the calmest he'd ever seen -- and he had six younger siblings.

But most of all, they were ... ordinary. They were living in a tiny house and the baby's father was a carpenter. There were tools arranged on a bench to one side of the house with a half-finished table nearby. The baby's mother was nothing exceptional, except for her calm about how these men were gathered around her child.

When they departed, the eldest sage told them they would be taking a different route home. The king was not to be trusted.

He gave one final look back to see the baby's father watching them, that sad look still on his face.

He wasn't sure if he could ever explain this when they got home, whenever that was.

*

The boy's mother once again found herself watching. This child -- normal in appearance and upbringing, if not always in demeanor -- was receiving visits from distant men with expensive gifts. While she certainly had a mother's bias, this just proved further that he was special.

She could only wonder what might follow such a visit.

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