December 25, 2017

Advent 2017

"What Change Hath God Wrought?"

"Mary, wake up. The caravan leaves at sunrise," Joseph whispered, shaking her gently by the shoulder.

He was holding a small lantern. The flickering lamplight traced blue scuffmarks across her eyes. She slowly pulled herself into a sitting position on the edge of the divan, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

"The baby was moving around all night. I couldn't rest," she said, supporting her protuberant abdomen with her hands.

"It won't be long now," Joseph said, helping his wife to her feet. "Nine moons have already passed since you became pregnant."

"It seems like an eternity," Mary said, sighing, her small hand at her back.

She pulled back the curtains and peered outside. A few invisible sheep were bleating in the distance. She could hear the dull staccato rhythm of their bells as they walked the hills around Nazareth. Despite the ochre stain of sunrise that was spreading across the horizon, a few stars still glimmered in the sky above.

"Shimon says that if we get started this early, we might make it to the Jezreel Valley before nightfall," Joseph said.

"Shimon is not pregnant," Mary said.

"And we should all be thankful for that. He's fat enough as it is," said Joseph, grinning.

Mary smiled back at him and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

"You are irreverent to your elders, Joseph," she said, wagging an index finger at him. "That's why I love you."

"That's not the only reason, is it?"

She shook her head.

"No, Joseph. Not the only one."

She put on her sandals and the two of them went outside. Joseph had already filled their wineskins with water and had packed away their bread, olive oil, dried fruit, and fish. He had strapped the bundles to their ornery old donkey, which was tied to an olive tree beside the front doorway.

"Good morning, Sara," Mary said, feeding the flop-eared creature a small carrot.

"If your cousin knew that you had named our donkey after her, she'd be cross with you," Joseph said.

"She's cross with me anyway," Mary said. "I think Sara is angry that I am pregnant, when she and Matthias have been trying to have a baby for years."

"Matthias says Sara is barren. He does not hold out great hope for a child," Joseph said.

"Well, they said my cousin Elizabeth was barren, and now she has given birth to John in her old age. It's a blessing from God - as is this child."

"Children are indeed a blessing," Joseph said, cinching up the straps that secured the wineskins. He untied the donkey, which flickered its ears and looked at him expectantly.

"Our donkey expects another carrot," Mary said.

"She expects too much. The old girl is swaybacked already. If Sara eats much more, she'll start looking like Shimon," said Joseph.

The caravan was assembling in the center of the small village. Mary spied her cousin Elizabeth sitting on the stone wall of the village well. She was nursing her infant son as they waited.

"Little John's growing so fast!" Mary said.

Elizabeth beamed, leaning forward to whisper in Mary's ear.

"He suckles so hard it hurts," she said. "But I am so grateful for him. I say prayers of thanks to God for him every day."

Elizabeth caressed Mary's belly with her free hand. John stirred and stopped suckling, staring up first at his mother and then at Mary. A toothless grin spread across his tiny face.

"He knows you, Mary!" Elizabeth said. She placed John up against her cousin's pregnant belly, which shifted suddenly in response.

"Look, Jesus is saying hello to John," Mary said.

John's sapphire eyes opened wide. He placed his pudgy little arms around Mary's belly and closed his eyes. Elizabeth was incredulous.

"I've never seen him do that, not even with me," she said. "He's usually such a handful, active all the time. I can barely get him to close his eyes at night to sleep. He's always hungry, and he cries out like a wounded goat when he wants something. The boy can be loud enough to wake the dead."

Elizabeth gazed down again at her infant son, whose eyes were closed. His face was creased with a self-satisfied smile.

"It's an omen from God, Elizabeth. God willing, Jesus and John will grow up to become fast friends," Mary said.

"They will, indeed," Elizabeth said. "We'll make sure of it."

Mary drew the bucket from the well. The water inside was cool and clear. She dipped a ladle into it and drank. A few drops of water trickled from the ladle on John's forehead, breaking the baby's trance.

"Oh, I'm sorry, little one," Mary said, but John merely looked up at her and smiled again.

"He doesn't mind. It's not like he hasn't seen water before," Elizabeth said, taking John to her breast once more.

"Tell me again - how are you so certain that your child is a boy? Did a seer tell you?" Elizabeth said.

"No, Elizabeth. I just know," she said.

She remembered how afraid she had been when the angel Gabriel had come to her all those many months ago. His face was brilliant, like the sun itself - shining so brightly that she dared not look at him, fearing that she would go blind or even be struck dead.

Blessed are thee among women, Gabriel had said. You will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.

Jesus, she had thought. Jesus of Nazareth.

Mary looked up and saw Joseph walking toward her. He was still leading Sara, but was also carrying a couple of walking sticks.

"Shimon says everyone's here now. He wants to get started. We have a long day's travel ahead of us," he said, handing Mary one of the walking sticks.

"Lead the way, husband," she said.

The rock-strewn road out of Nazareth wound through the hills, its serpentine path taking the little band of pilgrims past fields dotted with grazing sheep and groves of twisted olive trees. She could see the tombs at the edge of town now, carved out of the limestone hillside like the eye sockets of a bleached white skull. The sun was climbing in the sky above them. Mary drew her headscarf tighter, keeping her eyes shaded.

"Why do we have to go all the way to Bethlehem?" she asked.

"The census," Joseph said. "We are supposed to go to the place where our family comes from - and I'm descended from King David, who was from Bethlehem. So the law says we must go there."

"But why is it so important that we go? What would happen if we just didn't?"

Joseph glanced over at her. His eyes were drawn tight.

"We are Roman subjects, Mary. And when the Roman emperor decrees that there is a census, we must comply. We give to God what is God's, but we also give to Caesar what is Caesar's. That is simply the way it is done. If I don't go along with it, I could be arrested. I am not going to risk imprisonment - or worse - over a mere inconvenience."

He kicked a stray stone aside with his foot.

"Besides, we can visit with my family in Judea. That can't be so bad, can it?"

"I don't know them," Mary said quietly.

"Well, you will soon enough. And they'll love you, Mary. Everybody does," he said, taking her hand and kissing her on the cheek.

By the middle of the day, the sun was blazing directly overhead, and Mary had begun to sweat. Dust covered her legs and feet. Her ponderous belly swayed back and forth as she walked, feeling like an anvil tethered to her spine.

"Joseph, stop for a minute. I need some water," she said, stopping to rest against a boulder by the side of the road.

Joseph cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted.

"Shimon! Mary needs to rest for a moment!"

The rotund old man, his long beard a scraggly mass of gray that looked like a desert weed sprouting from his face, raised his hand.

The caravan stopped.

"We'll break here," Shimon said.

Joseph took one of the wineskins from the donkey's back and handed it to Mary, along with a handful of dried dates.

"Here," he said. "Drink and eat. The dates will give you strength."

"Going to Bethlehem is going to be too far for me," she said. "I won't make it."

"Of course you will," said Joseph.

"I'm already tired and it is only the first day. How many days like this will there be?"

"If the weather holds up and the Jordan has not flooded its banks, the journey will take us five days," said Joseph.

Mary sat down on the ground and dabbed tears from her eyes.

"It's impossible. I can't," she said.

Joseph knelt down beside her.

"Is it not true that through God all things are possible?" he said.

Mary nodded.

"And what did the angel say to you?"

Mary was silent.

"Did he not say that you were blessed?" Joseph said.

She nodded again, dabbing at her eyes once more.

"Then God is watching over you, Mary. God will not let you fail. The Lord will provide," said Joseph, pounding his fist into his palm for emphasis.

At that precise moment, a scudding cloud sailed across the sky, blotting out the sun - and then, without warning, it began to rain.

Joseph grinned broadly, his arms outstretched.

"See? The Lord provides."

Mary could not help but smile.

Thank you, she said. It was a simple prayer, known but to her and to God.

As night fell that evening, the band of travelers found that they had made great progress. They had indeed made it to the Valley of Jezreel. Above them, in the hills, was the walled fortress city of Megiddo. The pilgrims pitched their camp next to a burbling stream at the edge of a verdant forest. A few of the men went out into the valley and captured some rabbits, roasting them on spits over an open flame. The scent of roasting meat made Mary's mouth water.

Joseph brought one of the roasted rabbits to Mary and sat down beside her on a large stone, beneath a towering date palm.

"Feeling better?" he asked.

Mary nodded.

He tore off some of the cooked rabbit flesh and gave it to her. She was famished, and ate it hungrily.

"I just got so hot today. When one is with child it makes everything more difficult. I am more tired. My legs ache, my feet are swollen, and my back feels like it might snap in two at any moment. The heat was just unbearable, like I was in an oven," said Mary, between mouthfuls.

"In a way, you are an oven, although the loaf isn't quite baked yet," he said, poking her gently.

"Men should get pregnant sometimes. Perhaps then you would not find all of this quite so amusing," Mary said.

"I don't find it amusing. I find you amusing," he said. "There's a difference."

He took her hand and caressed it gently. The stars were emerging overhead, spilling like diamonds across the vast expanse of the darkening night sky. The two of them, hand in hand, stared in wonder at the heavens.

"Why did you marry me?" Mary asked, after a few minutes of silence.

"Because I love you," he said.

"But this is not your child. You knew that, and you married me anyway. Why did you do that?"

"An angel appeared to me in a dream and told me that the child you carry was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that I should marry you as we had planned."

"So you would not have married me had the angel not come to you?"

Joseph gazed at his wife.

"Mary, I have always loved you, and I had always planned to marry you. The angel just confirmed what was already in my heart," he said.

They slept in their clothes beneath the stars that night. Mary was lulled to sleep by the gentle chirrup chirrup of the crickets in the underbrush. Sara the donkey, tied to a nearby fig tree, chewed every leaf she could reach down to the twig it grew from.

Perhaps it was the fatigue of walking all day in the sun, or possibly the expression of love by her husband, but for whatever reason, Mary's sleep that night was deep and dreamless. She awoke at dawn the next morning fully rejuvenated. After her eyes opened, she simply lay there for a moment, listening to the gentle susurration of the shallow stream as it flowed over the rocks on its way to the river Jordan. The scent of wood smoke hung dense and heavy in the air.

The shouts came from the other side of the camp. Mary sat up. People were running toward the creek. Some carried upraised spears; a few carried slings, like King David of old.

"What is it? What is happening?" Mary asked, sitting up.

An answer to her question came in the form of a ferocious roar.

"Lions!" she exclaimed.

Mary got to her feet and hurried over to the source of the commotion.

The people had gathered along the banks of the creek, facing off against the largest male lion Mary had ever seen. His mane was dark brown, almost black, and his gleaming white teeth looked like ivory spear tips in his gaping maw. Muscular and fearsome, with sparkling golden eyes, the lion stood his ground, with three smaller lionesses pacing back and forth beside him. A dense musky odor hung in the air, along with another scent, metallic and vaguely familiar.

Blood, Mary realized. I'm smelling blood.

And when the great lion opened his mouth and roared once more, Mary realized that he had a massive paw planted squarely on Shimon's chest.

"Shimon!" Mary screamed.

Joseph, startled by the sound of his wife's voice, pushed through the throng of onlookers to reach her side.

"You don't need to see this, Mary," he said, turning her head away from the scene as he held her.

"How did the lion get Shimon?"

"Shimon was filling his wineskin with water from the stream. One of the she-lions pounced on him and dragged him over to the big male lion there."

"Is Shimon badly hurt?" said Mary.

"It's hard to know. The lions won't let us near."

Mary stared at Shimon, whose eyes were wide with terror. His breath came in short, ragged gasps. The old man had been a good friend of her father and had always been kind to her. The two families were very close. He had taken Mary and her brother fishing in the Sea of Galilee many times when she was a young girl. They had shared many meals over the years, even the Passover Seder. In fact, when she and Joseph married, it had been Shimon who had blessed their union. And now? The old man, usually so full of life, looked shriveled and spent.

Dear God, he's going to be eaten by a lion. Right in front of me, no less, she thought.

"Kill the lion! Kill it!" someone shouted.

"No! If we kill the male, the she-lions will attack Shimon!" someone else cried.

The wind picked up, swirling dust devils into the air. Inexplicably, the sky began to darken, as if the emerging sun had decided to abdicate the day and return back to the underworld. A flock of doves, wings beating, erupted from the nearby underbrush and flapped into the sky, startling everyone.

All at once, the lions began roaring - all of them, in unison, their lips drawn back, terrible teeth bared. Shimon began screaming, his eyes closed tight. Several of the women began ululating, their fingertips reaching to heaven, even as the strange morning darkness closed in about them and swallowed them all whole, like some great coiled snake from hell.

Dear God, help us, Mary thought.

Mary felt the unborn child in her womb move. It was an odd sensation, as though the child was standing on her pelvis, and it made her feel weak.

"Oh," she said softly, her knees buckling.

"Mary, are you all right?" Joseph said. He supported his wife with his arms.

"No, I'm fine," she said, closing her eyes against the darkness. "Just felt a little dizzy, that's all."

Suddenly, a murmur went up through the crowd.

"Mary?" Joseph said, in a strangled voice.

She opened her eyes.

The lions had stopped roaring. They were all staring at Mary.

The male lion carefully took his paw off of Shimon's chest and backed away. The she-lions also backed away. The giant cats kept their gaze fixed on Mary. As they retreated, the darkness began to lift, the wind died down and the early morning sun began to warm the pilgrims' bodies once more.

Blinking against the re-emergent dawn, the great lion regarded Mary one last time. Shaking its mane, it roared once more, then turned and leapt into the nearby brush. The she-lions silently followed him, bolting back into the darkened primeval forest from which they had come.

Everyone had crowded around Shimon. The old man sat up, insisting that he was fine.

"'Tis but a flesh wound," he said, pulling up his bloodied tunic to reveal his new battle scar - which was, in fact, surprisingly superficial. Shaken and pale, but otherwise intact, he stood up with the help of a few of the bystanders - and then he saw Mary.

"Mary?" Shimon said. "Can I have a word with you? In private?"

He shooed the others away, leaning heavily on his walking stick but standing on his own. The color seemed to be coming back into his cheeks. He smiled, thin-lipped, at Mary as she tottered across the rock-strewn ground toward him.

Shimon grasped Mary's hands in his own and embraced her. As he did, he whispered something into her ear, so close that she could feel his hot breath against her skin.

"I thought I was dead," he said.

The old man's eyes were still the same as always, variegated chips of agate set deep in the eye sockets of his leathery face, but there was a profound gravity to his gaze that she had not seen since her father died.

"The lions - did you see them? How they looked at you?"

Mary nodded.

"Look, Mary, I'm an old man now. I don't have many years left. But I have seen a lot of things in my many years - and I know the Lord's blessing when I see it. You've been blessed, Mary."

"All children are a blessing," Mary said.

"Indeed, that is true. But this one might be different."

He patted her on the head and smiled.

"Your father would be so very proud of you, Mary. Never forget that," he said. "And don't forget to count your blessings every day. Lord knows I do - especially now."

Mary dabbed a tear from her eye as she watched the old man walk away.

Joseph put his strong arm around her shoulders.

"Everything all right?" he said.

"I just miss my father," she said. "I wish he could see his first grandchild."

"He'll see him, Mary. I promise," Joseph said. He kissed her gently on the cheek. "James will know Jesus very, very well."

The caravan was finally packed and ready to go before the sun reached its noon position overhead - a remarkable feat, given the distractions of that morning.

Four days later, Joseph and Mary stood with Sara the donkey on the hills overlooking Bethlehem. Night had fallen, and the little town was dotted with lamplight and flickering hearth fires.

Carefully, bearing a lighted torch to illuminate the darkness, Joseph led Mary and Sara down the last stretch of the road that ended at the City of David. The sky overhead was spangled with stars, including one which seemed to blaze far brighter than the rest.

"It won't be long now," Joseph said, resting his palm on Mary's pregnant belly. "Soon, this baby will be born, and our entire lives will change."

Mary said nothing, for she knew Joseph was right. Children always bring change to a family - and that change is inevitable, the passing of the spark of life from one generation to the next.

But there was something else - a flickering unspoken truth that shone like a beacon in her soul.

This child will be more than that, she thought.

He will be Jesus of Nazareth.

-- Mark Murphy

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