Christmas

Advent Stories: The Angel

Fear not!

I figured I should get that out of the way. It’s not the best opening line, but when humans are constantly fainting or having near heart failure every time they see you, you learn to do a little advance damage control.

I realize an angelic appearance can be a little startling at first, but every single time? Come on. When faced with something you don’t understand, you always reach for fear. It’s your way of protecting yourself from the unknown, I guess, but it seems strange to me.

I’ve had more chances to terrify people these past few months since the days of the patriarchs. Not that that’s my goal—although, okay, I’ll admit, it is fun.

No, the point, the whole focus of my existence, is being a messenger of the glory of God.

Sound familiar? It should. That’s your purpose too. It’s just you humans get so caught up in the tiny externals of your little lives that you forget why you’re here.

I’m doing it again. That condescending thing. Sometimes, I have to remind myself, we’re not that different: me, an ancient, heaven-dwelling, genderless, warrior-messenger and you, a weak, mortal human born to live on Earth for a hundred years at most and doomed to fall and fail a thousand times before then.

See? Practically the same.

For example, we both…ah…we’re almost….

Nope. I got nothing. But I’ll think of it, I promise. (more…)

Advent Stories: The Scribe

Some of my best friends have been dead for hundreds of years. It sounds strange, I know, but when your sole occupation is reading and re-reading the sacred texts, you begin to empathize with the writers. There are days when I feel as if I could turn to Jeremiah and say, “At what point does lament become sinful bitterness?” or debate politics with Elijah.

But they never answer. It’s probably for the best. If I really started hearing voices, well…maybe what the others say of me would be true after all.

You see, the prophets, they understand loneliness. They understand captivity. Theirs was Babylon or Assyria, mine is Rome.

Here in Jerusalem, Herod keeps us, scribes of the Hebrews, in his collection of soothsayers and pagan priests, to bring out when the whim strikes to advise him on the will of the gods. As if there could ever be more than one.

These visitors from the East upset him. It was all the court could talk about for days, their magnificent procession into Jerusalem, the city of kings, looking for the ruler of the Jews. Not Herod the Pretender, but our Messiah, the deliverer the prophets speak of.

They saw a star, of all things. Very strange, it seems to me, but what do I know of how God chooses to work? He lit a bush on fire to get Moses’ attention. Why not a star?

“Where is he?” Herod demanded of us. “Where do your holy texts say your king will be born?” (more…)

Advent Stories: The Innkeeper

Pay your taxes, they said. Come to the land of your fathers and be counted, they said. Make Judea great again, they said—Herod the Great’s, that is. But did they tell me about the stress it would cause? No. Me, a hardworking innkeeper in a respectable three-camel town in the middle of nowhere, suddenly overrun by every half-wit peasant whose mother gave birth within a ten-mile radius of Bethlehem.

Nobody thinks of the little guy anymore, that’s the trouble. As I always say, “All roads lead to Rome, all dirt paths with potholes lead to Bethlehem.” And they were jammed with travelers this week for the census. Every room in my inn was full to bursting, every scrap of food eaten, every dish in my house dirtied three times over. Good for business, bad for my back. I’m not young anymore, you know.

My wife and I, we raised the prices a bit, of course. Not nearly as much as those traitorous gouging tax collectors. But as I always say, “When in the Roman empire, do as Romans do.”

I was full up like every other inn when the knock came. Too late for new customers, but I opened the door anyway. There was a man and his pregnant wife—near ready to burst, I’d say—on my doorstep. “Do you have a room for us?” the man asked, almost pleaded. “We’ve been turned away all over the city.”

Now, I’m an innkeeper. We know well the warnings about refusing strangers. We’ve had our ears tanned with vivid stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and Rahab in Jericho. I grew up thinking any traveler I met might be an angel, or, even better, a spy.

Life disappointed me there. I’ve never had any person of note stay in my inn. Probably never will.

But seeing that woman and her child, well, it reminded me of what my dear mother always told me—there is always room. You can stretch the soup a little farther, wear the blankets a little thinner, pack the common rooms a little fuller.

You can decide if she was hospitable or just profitable. As for me, it was my duty, yes, my sacred honor not to turn away that young couple. She looked so tired, and he looked so…all right, if I’m honest, he looked about ready to punch someone. If I’d shut the door in his face, I think he’d have beaten it down.

But I don’t hold it against him. Taxes and a long road trip will do that to anyone.

innkeeper2

I let them stay out in the stable, the cave out back where the guests tether their animals for the night. Oh, it was clean enough…mostly. Manure has to go somewhere. But there was a roof of sorts and what you might call a bed—I threw down some new straw before getting back to the guests. (more…)

Advent Stories: The Cousin

They call it the Holy Place, but given enough time, even holy places can seem ordinary. That’s what I thought seven months ago, when Zechariah was chosen to go into the temple to burn incense before the Lord.

Just another offering. Just the same old temple, the psalms of worship I’d heard so often, the rules and rituals and routine of life. There hadn’t been an incident of smiting in centuries. Or a miracle, for that matter.

Oh, we prayed for one…but we never expected an answer to our prayers. And certainly not one like this.

Even wives of priests forget what holiness means, every now and then.

Now the whole town knows what happened that day. I didn’t even get the excitement of being the first to tell my family I was expecting. Ah, well. We’ve probably had enough surprises this year anyway.

The angel told Zechariah my soon-to-be-born son is supposed to be a messenger like Elijah.

So. Our boy is going to be like the mountain-man prophet who exploded in and out of Israelite politics with declarations of famine and rain, life and death. And he’s to be a Nazarite, a child of oath, like Samson, the long-haired strong man with no self-control and a talent for causing destruction with bones, city gates, flaming foxes, and whatever else happens to be on hand.

Not the role models I would have chosen, but what can I say? You can’t argue with God. Zechariah tried, and look where it got him.

“What does that mean?” I asked my husband. “What sort of gifts should people bring to our son? Fire-and-brimstone resistant blankets? A toy raven, perhaps? A Baby’s First Altar builder set?”

That’s what I said, but what I was really asking was: “Why us? How do we raise a child who will prepare the way for the Lord?”

Zechariah didn’t tell me. Hasn’t spoken a word since he left the temple, actually.

I have to admit…it’s a nice change. I love my husband, but the way he talks…even his studying isn’t a solitary activity. He’ll talk to himself, me, even the long-dead author of whatever Scripture he’s reading. Leave it to him to even read like an extrovert.

Lately, it’s been quiet, peaceful. Almost too quiet, which is why I welcomed my cousin Mary’s visit. And now I know the answer to some of my questions, at least.

Our John will prepare the way for Mary’s child. The baby jumped inside my womb—nearly knocked me over in his excitement—the minute she called out to me, and I knew. Somehow, I knew the news my virgin cousin was bringing to her old, barren relative six months along with child.

I told the story back to her before she had a chance to get it out—that our Lord had chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah.

cousins

It sounds crazy, I know. But what can I say? There’s a bit of the unexpected in our Lord, a sense of humor, you might say, a love for reversing our expectations. A bit like Joseph, Mary’s betrothed. I always liked him. A solid man, but not as serious as Zechariah’s priest friends. They act like “Thou shalt not laugh” is the unspoken eleventh commandment.

If Joseph were here now, he wouldn’t demand to know why Zechariah can’t speak or why I insist on the name John for my son. He’d make a joke about whether I have any pregnancy craving for prunes, then deliver a hand-carved cradle which he would pretend was “nothing much, just a little something I made in the shop.” And he’d never leave Mary’s side.

What will he think, when he hears about Mary? An angelic visitation re-told sounds like a hungover delusion at best and an outrageous excuse at worst. Will the Lord grant him enough trust to believe in secondhand stories of miracles?

And what will happen to Mary if he doesn’t? (more…)

Advent Stories: The Refugees

Egypt

Joseph: Well, another long day of travel. It really worked out, joining this caravan. We don’t even need to stop for directions. You know, it won’t be so bad, living away from home for a while. Like an extended vacation. The Nile is great this time of the year, I hear. I’ve always wanted to visit…tour the pyramids…wrestle crocodiles….

Mary: Hmm? Oh, yes, maybe so.

Joseph: You didn’t hear a word I just said.

Mary: Something about Egypt.

Joseph: That was a lucky guess, wasn’t it?

Mary: Do you think much about Jochebed?

Joseph: You mean the crazy old weaver who lived down the road in Nazareth?

Mary: No. The mother of Moses.

Joseph: Can’t say that I do. To me, that story didn’t get interesting until the flaming bush. There’s just something about fire….

Mary: Do you suppose she felt guilty that her son lived when so many others died?

Joseph: If she did—and she probably did not, because that doesn’t make any logical sense—I’m sure her husband talked her out of it. He said something like, “Jochebed, you are not the one tossing those babies in the Nile. That would be Pharaoh, and God will hold him accountable for his evil actions.” Right, Mary?

Mary: Herod murdered the babies, Joseph. All of them. We escaped, and they didn’t, and we didn’t even warn them.

Joseph: My dream told us only to flee immediately. Nothing else. We couldn’t have known what would happen, and there was nothing we could do to stop it even if we had.

Mary: I suppose not.

Joseph: Let’s talk about something else. I’ve been working on a list based on our people’s long and storied history: Things Not to Do When Fleeing to Egypt. One: Do not pretend your beautiful wife is your sister. This never works out the way you planned. I guarantee that was Abraham’s idea. No woman would be that idiotic. So never fear, I will loudly and immediately proclaim that you are my wife, so there’ll be no mistaking it.

Mary: No one here will know us. It’ll be very lonely.

Joseph: We’ll find others. We can’t be the only Israelite refugees to Egypt. It’s all the rage in our history, you know. Which brings me to Rule Number Two of Fleeing to Egypt: Do not sell your brother into slavery to a random passing caravan. Even if he’s incredibly annoying.

Mary: Joseph….

Joseph: Rule Three: If you do sell your brother into slavery, make sure he’s an administrative genius who can save your entire family from famine.

Mary: Joseph.

Joseph: Not interested in my thrilling overview of Isaiah’s prophecies against Egypt, then? Because that was coming next. You’re giving me that look.

Mary: What look?

Joseph: The it’s-your-turn-to-change-the-baby-look. But Jesus is asleep, so it can’t be that.

Mary: Can you be serious for just a moment? Honestly.

Joseph: Honestly? I’m exhausted. I couldn’t protect my family—my own wife and child—and now we’re running to a foreign land for who knows how long, with no idea what will happen next and no promise that anyone will help us. And I’m hot and sore and tired of eating stale bread and tired of walking and just…tired. Does he know, Mary, what his visitations and proclamations and miracles are doing to us down here? Does he care?

Mary: He cared for Hagar.

Joseph: Wrong race, my dear. Hagar was an Egyptian.

Mary: Hagar was a mother wandering in the desert who left her son under a bush and crawled away because she couldn’t bear to watch him die. Until an angel provided a way of escape and spoke promises over her. And Hagar named the Lord “the God who sees.” I’m glad we have those stories, at least. The old ones.

Joseph: Like Joseph. The one I was named after. I asked Father to tell me the story over and over again when I was young. I remember ever detail of it, could probably quote it to you to this day. Once he was living in Egypt, he named his sons Manessah—meaning “to forget” because he wanted to forget his past and his family. And Ephriam—meaning “fruitful” because God made him fruitful in the land of his affliction. Mary…I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to prosper in the land of affliction.

Mary: We didn’t name our son Manessah or Ephriam. We named our son Jesus. “God saves.” He brought us out of Egypt once before.

Joseph: We weren’t there. That was generations ago.

Mary: But God hasn’t changed since then.

Joseph: We’ve done a reversal. I am Sarah, laughing at the angel’s promise, doubting. And you are Abraham, counting the stars in the sky, holding your precious son close, but ready….

Mary: What?

Joseph: Nothing, dear. It was a bad analogy, that’s all.

Mary: You were going to say, “Ready to sacrifice him on the mountain if God asked it.” I know the story too.

Joseph: But he won’t ask it. That was a test, just for Abraham. You know our God doesn’t require the shedding of human blood.

Mary: The angel said “He will save the people from their sins.” Doesn’t that sound like a sacrifice to you? Or the words of Simeon at the temple: “This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel…and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” If God asked it…oh, I don’t know if I could. I don’t know if I could even watch.

Joseph: He would not ask it. He would never ask a mother to do such a thing.

Mary: He asked all those mothers in Bethlehem to watch their children die.

Joseph: Mary.

Mary: How could he do it? Could you hear the wailing, rising up the valley? “Rachel, weeping for her children.” It was the most terrible thing I’ve ever heard.

Joseph: You remember what Joseph said, at the end of his life, don’t you? It’s the Fourth Rule for Fleeing to Egypt: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.” There are evil people, Mary, who do evil things. But God means it for good.

Mary: “That many people should be kept alive.” I’ve thought and thought about it, Joseph. Everything the angels said, the prophecies of Zachariah and Elizabeth and Simeon…and still I can’t understand it.

Joseph: In all the stories, God never expected his people to understand. Sarah and Abraham, Hagar and Joseph and Jochebed—there was only one thing they had in common: they heard a promise from God…and they believed.

Mary: I know. I know. But, Joseph…I just want to go home.

Joseph: We will. I know we’ll come up out of Egypt, because he has promised we will. And I believe.

(To read the rest of the Advent Stories, go here.)

 

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Advent Stories: The Wise Man

Just look at the sky tonight! It is, I believe, the most wondrous sight of this beautiful, terrible world—more than mountains, more than a sunrise or sunset. You see, stars are both order and beauty, science and art, all at once. We can predict them, chart them, map them…but we also use them to tell stories.

You must pardon me if I ramble. I have traveled a long way. All of us have.

WiseMen

Most members of my caravan speak your language. We are scholars, and it was taught to us many generations ago by the seer Belshazzar—you would know him as Daniel—and his fellow exiles. And so you understand our words, but still you seem to be puzzled by what we seek. When we tell you that we have come to pay tribute to the King of the Jews, you whisper in fear and confusion.

Your King Herod especially. I saw it in his eyes. He feels threatened by this, by us and our journey and the news we bear. I cannot understand it. He may be…how can I say this tactfully in your language?

Crazy. There is no tactful way to say that, perhaps. So there it is. A crazy man is a dangerous thing. A crazy man ruling a nation….

You have surely heard of our Nebuchadnezzar. His pride was punished by your God taking away his strength of mind. He was like a wild animal for seven years before he was restored. I have to admit, it gives me great satisfaction to imagine your Herod eating grass and braying like a donkey.

It was with great reluctance that Herod gave us the information we sought…at first. Then he replied with hasty apologies and grand statements of his intent to worship the king as well.

It did not…. How shall I put this? It did not feel very genuine. Nebuchadnezzar took seven long years to repent of his pride. I am doubtful your Herod accomplished the same in fifteen minutes. (more…)

Advent Stories: The Prophetess

Never get old. It just isn’t worth it.

Really, the noise in the marketplace today! It would’ve deafened me if I weren’t already deaf. I could barely get to the women’s court in the temple. It must be those Zealots again, causing trouble. Young people these days. Barely have time to pray, but they think they’ll start a revolution!

Change is coming. I’m old. I hate change. I consider it a major deviation from my routine when I eat an extra spoonful of lentils for breakfast. But what sort of change it is, whether it will be for the better, I can’t say. These are dark days.

Anna

That’s why I come here, to the temple, every day at precisely the same time, and have for so many years I’ve lost count. Do you know there are still a few who try to get me to leave? “A woman’s place is in the home,” they say. Young people these days. They can’t name the Ten Commandments, but they can give you ten reasons why everything you’re doing is wrong.

Well, when you’re eighty-four and a widow with no family to care for, a woman’s place is right here, I say. Like Miriam. Like Hannah. Like Deborah. Like all the women of faith who praised the Lord while the men were out being patriarchs and warriors and kings. It gives us a purpose, we with no children to raise.

Will anyone remember me when I’m gone? Will anyone look around the women’s court and say, “Where is Anna?”

Simeon would. But, oh, some days I think Simeon is older than I am, or at least more worn out. The way he shuffles along, rasping out that the time is near, that the Messiah is coming.

He can die in peace now. He has seen him. So have I.

Did you pass by them, the ordinary-looking couple with the baby? The man was a bit scruffy—young people these days—but he brought his son to be dedicated as the Law commands, so I suppose that’s all right. The mother was young. So very young…. What was her name again? (more…)