Advent Stories: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1863

Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow

The older brother is the mature, responsible one, the younger carefree and reckless. That’s what everyone says.

But not in my family. One look at our family photograph, taken when my mother was still alive, and you can see at a glance: Ernest, the small, timid, logical one who preferred books to athletics. And next to him, favoring the viewer with a smile despite the photographer’s warning to the contrary, Charley, the golden boy, the ace scholar and champion sportsman…and now the Union army lieutenant.

Well, he was a lieutenant, anyway.

It’s been 25 days since we received the telegram that every family dreads. I remember that clearly because it came on December 1, the first day of Advent, the season of expectation. It sounds terrible to say, but I’d been expecting the news ever since we heard the causalities from Antietam. Our boys, our Boston-raised, tried-and-true Yankee boys cut down by the hundreds, thousands even.

But I didn’t expect Charley’s first letter, tossed on the table like an afterthought over a year ago. Father’s hands trembled as he read it. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer.” That’s what Charley said when he ran off to join the Union army, as if he was compelled by an irrepressible instinct and couldn’t help himself. Then he went on about duty and love of country and sacrifice.

Even then, at sixteen, I knew it’s not the son who leaves who sacrifices. It’s the one who stays.

The telegram informed my father that a reporter friend of his had chanced upon Charley among the wounded in a Virginia hospital.

Of course, Father wanted to go to the capital right away, where the worst cases were being taken. I left my classes in military engineering to go with him, battling miserable December weather to scrounge a ticket on a late-night steamboat from Fall River to Washington City.

At least the prodigal son had the decency to come home and save his father and brother the trip.

Do you know how many times I wanted to blurt that out, every hour that the swaying of the steamboat and the muttering of the other passengers kept us awake? But I didn’t, not once, because I’m the son who cares about what his words and actions do to our father.

I just moved his armchair closer to one of the lounge’s small stoves and prayed. Not that Charley would live, but that Father would. (more…)

Advent Stories: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Paris, 1966

Mother Thomas More (Dr. Mary Berry)

Dr. Berry conducting in 1999.

It’s ridiculous, really. In my life, I have fled Belgium on the last train to Paris to escape invading Nazis. I have worked midnight-hour shifts at an infirmary in Rome during a deadly typhoid epidemic. I have fought with the distinguished heads of Cambridge University for years to be allowed to study a nearly-dead form of ancient music.

And yet here I stand, working on a simple academic article, not knowing what to say or how to say it. Bested by an empty page.

You see, I’ve solved a mystery. Just a small one. Outside of my little corner of the world, you may not have even been aware of it at all. But you’ve heard of the song being questioned, surely: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a favourite of Christmas services and concerts the world over.

The translator of the song, John Mason Neale was, like me, an English musician and a scholar. Unlike me, he was an Anglican. His particular controversy was founding the Society of Saint Margaret, a group of women trained to nurse the poor and sick. Too Catholic, the naysayers of the 1800s said, as if it was the pope who gave dignity to women and instructed true believers to serve the least of these, rather than Jesus.

Neale’s bishop disapproved, his congregants muttered, and others went farther. Death threats. Stoning attempts. He was once physically attacked at a funeral for one of the women he had dedicated his life to serving.

I would have liked Neale, I think. I know what it’s like to disagree with my superiors, with the masses, with the mindset of an entire generation.

His friend Thomas Helmore is credited with the music that accompanied the translation, though he in turn attributed it to “a French Missal,” a medieval liturgy similar to the Gregorian chants I’ve dedicated my life to studying. (more…)

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.


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.


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


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.)