Monday, December 21, 2015

The Carpenter's Christmas



"We're almost there, Mari."

"I'm sorry, Yosef.  I can't."  She gasped and dug her fingers into my arm.  "Not one more step."

"It's less than a mile."

She glared at me, sweat beading on her forehead.  "Fine, then!" she yelled angrily.  "You can carry the baby the rest of the way!"

Maryam had been complaining of pains for the last two miles.  At first, I'd dismissed them as fatigue, or indigestion, or imagination.  After all, it was a week yet until her due date.  But looking at her now, I was forced to admit that she was well into her labor.  I'd planned to arrive in Bethlehem five days ago; we were supposed to be settled safely under Uncle Nathan's roof by now – Maryam couldn't just lie down along the side of the road to give birth like one of her ewes!  "Please, Mari.  Try.  We're so close, just a little farther to Uncle Nathan's house, and his daughters will take care of you and the baby."

She shook her head, in tears.  "No!  I can't!  You don—ohhh!"  Whatever she was about to say was swallowed up in a loud cry as she half bent, half crouched, clutching her stomach. I held on to her until the spasm passed, and then turned and started unloading gear from the ass.  

"Here," I said, pitching the bag containing my tools to the ground, "you ride the rest of the way."  With some effort, I lifted her onto the back of the beast, her legs dangling a foot or two above the ground as she sat pillowed on the worn blankets we'd been using for bedding.  Slinging my tools and the other gear over my shoulder, I took the donkey's halter rope and led it slowly along the road.  Whenever Maryam's pains came, I stopped and held her so she wouldn't fall off.  In this way, we made it to the outskirts of Bethlehem.

She was sobbing by the time the first houses came into view.  "It hurts, Yosef.  Stop.  Please.  Stop."

"Not now, Maryam.  We need to get to the house.  It's on the other side of town—"

"Stop!"  She was screaming.  Before I could respond, she slid off the donkey and collapsed to the ground.  The blankets on which she'd been sitting were soaked through.  I didn't know what that meant, but I was pretty sure it wasn't good.

I crouched down beside her, fighting the feelings of helplessness that threatened to overwhelm me.  At that moment, I'd have given anything to have my mother by my side—or any woman, for that matter.  Birthing babies was their province.  What did I know of such things?  What did any man know of them?  "Mari, what should I do?" I asked.

"No more riding," she gasped.  "It's torture."

"All right," I said quickly.  "No more riding."

"No more walking," she added.  There was an edge to her voice, as if she was about to slip back into hysteria.

"All right," I reassured her.  "No more walking."  They were just words, spoken soothingly to calm her.  If she couldn't ride, she'd have to walk or give birth here in the dirt of the road.  But I'd let her rest a minute first, wait until the pain eased off enough for her to get to her feet and finish the journey.  We were less than half a mile from Uncle Nathan's house.  I was sure she'd be able to make it.

I was wrong.  Maryam wasn't even willing to try.  Or maybe that's being unfair to her; maybe she was willing but unable.  The results were the same in either case.  She lay there, at the side of the road, crying and moaning and begging me to make it stop, but refusing to take another step toward the comfort of the house that was waiting for us on the south side of Bethlehem.  So I did the only thing I could.  I left her there.

Oh, I didn't go far—that would have been criminally heartless.  Instead I ran to the nearest house and pounded on the door until someone opened it.  The face that peered at me through the crack was suspicious—as I myself would have been, at this hour of the night—but not hostile.  I glanced over my shoulder to check on Maryam; I could just make out her form in the light of the rising moon.  She hadn't moved.  I turned back to the man in the house.  "My wife, she's in labor.  I need a place for her to lie down."

He opened the door a few inches wider and peered out, verifying the truth of my story.  Then he grunted.  "I'm sorry, I can't help you.  I've got travelers here on their way up to the Feast, and every inch of my house is full."

"Perhaps your neighbor—" I began hopefully, but he shook his head.

"Every guest-room in Bethlehem is full," he said.  "What did you expect?  It's the day before Sukkoth—half the world is going up to the city!"

"Just one corner," I begged.

He shook his head again, stepped out into the moonlight, and pulled the door shut behind him.  "Look, I've no wife of my own, but if I did, I wouldn't want her in here with me tonight.  I've six men crammed into my rooms, and four more on the roof.  It's no place for a woman, in labor or out, if you know what I mean.  Try one of the houses farther up the road.  Perhaps—"

A cry split the air.  Woven through it was my name.  I ran back to Maryam's side as quickly as I could, only vaguely aware that the stranger was following.

"Yosef!"  Maryam cried again, clutching my arms as I dropped to my knees beside her.

Without looking up, I spoke to the stranger.  "I don't have time to go door to door."

"Yes, I can see that much."  He sighed.  "Tell you what, Yosef.  Take my stable."

"Your stable?" I asked, cradling Maryam against my side as she moaned.

"More of a cave, really.  It's just behind the house, there.  It doesn't have a door, and you'll have to share it with my animals, but the fence will keep out any wild beasts and at least you'll have some privacy."

A stable.  "How far?" I asked.

"Not far at all.  You should be able to carry her.  I'll lead your donkey."

"Thank you, um...?"  I didn't know my host's name.

"Asher.  Please, don't thank me.  It's the least I can do and still live with myself."

I got my legs under me, wrapped my arms around Maryam, and managed to stand up without dropping her.  Asher grabbed hold of the ass's halter and led it up a short rise and around a bend.  I followed with some difficulty.  Maryam herself was a petite thing, but pregnancy had added several pounds to her weight, and she wasn't exactly lying still in my arms.  Add to this the unfamiliar path, the shifting moonlight, and the fact that I'd covered a hundred miles on foot in the last two weeks...

The entrance of the cave was low, and I had to stoop slightly to enter.  Most of the stable was taken up by a brace of oxen and a milk goat with her kid tethered to one side near the opening.  Our host was already tying the donkey beside them, probably to keep it out of the fodder he had stored in the far corner of the stable.  The hay there was piled thick enough to make a decent bed for Maryam, but if she gave birth while lying on it, it would be ruined as feed, so I set her on her feet and began to pull the wet blankets off the donkey, looking for a place to spread them.

"No," Asher interrupted, taking the blankets from me and tossing them to one side.  "Use the hay."

"It'll be spoiled—"

"Don't worry about that.  I can spare some."  He scooped up an armful of hay, piling it thickly beside the nearest wall and covering it with the driest of our blankets.  "You'll want to change it afterward.  Take as  much as you need.  Just pitch the soiled straw outside into the offal pit and we'll burn it tomorrow."  He turned to leave.  "I'll send someone into town to see if we can find you a midwife," he called out as he shut the gate behind him.

I settled Maryam on the makeshift bed.  She didn't want to lie down but sat with her back against the rock wall.  Following her instructions, I pushed some of the straw up behind her to serve as a cushion.  "Now," I said with a smile, "we'll just wait for the midwife to arrive."

"I don't think I can."  She half gasped, half sobbed the words.

"Of course you can," I soothed.  "Just relax."

Instead, she tensed up, clutched at the straw, and yelled.  "Adonaiiiii!"  As soon as the pain subsided enough for her to talk, she said, "Yosef, you have to help me!"

How could I help her?  I didn't know what to do, and I said as much.

"You helped Father with the lambing last spring," she panted.

I nodded.

"It's the same thing."

Somehow I doubted that.  To start with, the ewes didn't bellow with pain, or grab me so hard that they left welts, or pant from exertion.  "Let's just wait for the midwife."

"Don't you think I'd rather wait?  Do you really think I want you to see me like this?"  She blushed, torn between shame and need.  "I can't, Yosef!  The baby's coming now and I need you to help me!"  Her final word stretched into a long, drawn-out wail as another contraction doubled her over.

I was out of choices, out of words.  The time had come for action.  Quickly I knelt in front of her, averting my eyes as I shoved her skirts up to her waist.  Do not be afraid to take Maryam home as your wife.  This was definitely not the way I'd planned our first intimate encounter to go.  Certainly my father's instructions contained no advice that would be helpful here.  Adonai eloheinu, I found myself praying, help us!  Show me what to do.

Gritting my teeth together, I looked up at my young wife's body, embarrassed for myself and for her.  What I saw shocked me—blood, blood everywhere.  The sight paralyzed me for a moment, but it also yanked me past my discomfiture.  Maryam cried out again, and the baby's head suddenly appeared.  At least, that's what I think it was.  It disappeared again almost immediately.  "Mari, what do I need to do?" I asked quietly, surprising myself with how calm I sounded.

She drew in three short, panting breaths and said, "Take his head.  In your hands."  Then she grimaced and let out a horrid, shuddering sound that was neither a scream nor a moan, but a mixture of the worst of each.  The baby's head came into sight again, and I reached out quickly, trying to catch hold of the tiny, slippery thing before he could escape.  My hands felt huge and clumsy, but I managed to grasp him gently and hold him firmly until Maryam was able to bear down one last time.  All at once, he slipped free of her and fell into my hands.

I knelt there in the bloody straw, holding the child who had turned my life upside down.  He was red and wrinkled, covered with blood and a waxy paste, and no more than a cubit from head to toe.  His tiny fists, each smaller than my thumb, were balled up tightly and his mouth stretched wide in a soundless scream.  Acting on instinct more than knowledge, I turned him over and massaged his back with one hand.  He let out a cry, taking his first breath, and I laid him on Maryam's breast.

I looked into her face, but she had eyes only for the child.  "Yeshua," she whispered, running her hands over his little body, counting his fingers and his toes, smoothing the dark curls that covered his head. At her touch, his cries subsided, though his mouth continued to open and close as if he were trying to suckle.  And then he opened his eyes.  They were dark—pools of black, as dark as the wine that lingers in the bottom of a cup.  He fixed his eyes on my face, or so it seemed to me at that moment.  Gazing back into those depths, I felt as if I were looking into eternity.  What do you see, little one?  What have you seen?  Where have you come from?  And why, oh why, are you here?

He didn't answer any of my unspoken questions, which hardly surprised me.  A fresh gush of bloody fluid snapped me out of my reverie.  "Maryam!"

She laughed.  "Relax, Yosef.  It's only the afterbirth."  She told me what to do matter-of-factly, no longer in pain and once again in control of the situation.  I followed her murmured instructions as she nursed the  baby.  She fell silent after a little while, and I looked up to see that both of them had fallen asleep.  Carefully, not wanting to disturb her, I lifted the child from her arms.  There were some clean rags packed among her things.  I used one of them, together with the water in our skin, to wash the child.  Then I wrapped him snugly in a clean cloth.

When all was done, I looked at the mess in which Maryam was lying.  I needed to get her cleaned up, but I couldn't do it while I was holding Yeshua.  I swept my glance over the stable, searching for a place to lay the baby.  A wooden trough caught my eye.  With one hand I dragged it away from the oxen after emptying it, and piled some fresh straw in the bottom to act as a cushion.  Then, satisfied that the baby's "bed" was as comfortable as I could make it, I laid Yeshua on the hay in the feed trough.
With both hands now free, I was able to scrape away most of the straw around Maryam and pitch it outside.  After piling fresh hay beside the trough, I spread the last of our clean blankets out on top of it.  Then I woke Maryam.  "Can you sit up?  I have a clean tunic for you."  I held out her garment and the things I'd used to bathe the baby.  "Here's some water, and a rag you can use to wash yourself."  I handed her the things, and then turned my back, suddenly shy again.  "Just throw your soiled clothes over here," I said without looking around at her.  I listened as she undressed and as she poured the water  over herself.  She hummed softly as she bathed and dressed.

"It's all right, you can turn around now," she said after a few minutes had passed.  Maryam was lying on the fresh bed I'd made for her, wearing a clean shift and a sleepy smile.  "Thank you, Yosef.  You were—you were wonderful."

I smiled and laughed softly so as not to wake the baby.  "Get some sleep, Mari.  You've earned it tonight."  I bent to pick up the rest of the soiled things, and carried all of them outside to the pit.  Her clothes were ruined far beyond washing; she'd just have to get new ones.  It was a small price to pay for a safe delivery.  At the thought, I dropped to my knees there outside the cave and praised God wholeheartedly as I'd never done before.  "Lord, thank you."  The words of the psalmist rang out in my soul and poured from my lips:  "Give thanks to Adonai, for He is good; His love endures forever!  Give thanks to El-Elyon, for His love endures forever!  To Him who alone does great wonders, who made the great lights, the sun to rule by day and the moon and the stars by night—"

I looked up at the heavens as I prayed, and my voice choked at what I saw there.  The harvest moon, nearly full, rose fat on the horizon, but its light paled beside that of the star that blazed directly overhead.  Never in all my life had I seen such a star.  It almost seemed that I could reach up and pluck it from the sky, so big and so close did it appear to be.

As I stood to my feet, I heard two things.  The first came from within the cave: a newborn's cry of hunger.  The second followed almost immediately, but came from somewhere behind me: voices, several men talking excitedly.  "There!  Did you hear?  Over this way!"

Concerned, I rushed into the stable and grabbed a winnowing rake that hung on one of the walls.  Maryam was just sitting up, reaching toward the trough in which Yeshua lay crying.  She stopped as she saw the look on my face and the weapon in my hands.  "What's wrong, Yosef?"

"Nothing, I hope.  But there are some men outs—"  Before I could finish my sentence, the first of them appeared, stooping to enter the cave.  At once, he gasped and fell to his knees.  But his eyes weren't fixed on me—it was the sight of the crying infant lying in a feed trough that had overwhelmed him.  At least, that's what I surmised, since he never once took his eyes off of Yeshua.

Six men arrived in this fashion, and each of them reacted in exactly the same way.  I stood by warily, holding the rake, but it was fairly obvious that they meant us no harm.  They stared at the child, speechless for quite a while, and two of them pressed their faces into the dirt.  Another kept murmuring, "The sign, the sign."  From their clothes and the unmistakeable odor of sheep that lingered about them, I guessed they were shepherds, but I saw no indication that they'd brought their flocks down with them.

Yeshua kept crying fitfully, and Maryam finally lifted him from his makeshift cradle.  Turning away from the shepherds, she began to nurse the baby.  I moved to stand closer to her, shielding her from the strangers, but my protection was not needed.  The men were respectful, keeping their distance, saying little.  Finally, one of them explained.

"We were up on the hill, watching the sheep.  And then, there was this bright star—brightest star I've ever seen.  And then, then there was a man standing there, facing me, only he was standing in the middle of the campfire."

"And he was big as Goliath," added another.

"But he was facing me when he talked," volunteered a third man.

"No," said the first man, "he was facing me, straight on, and I was clear across the fire from you, Kaleb."

"That's as may be," the one called Kaleb replied, "but he was facing me, too."

"And me," said the second man, and one by one they all agreed that the messenger had been facing each of them at the same time, although they'd been sitting on every side of the campfire.

"He said, 'Don't be afraid,' but let me tell you, it didn't help much," the first shepherd continued.  "The whole sky was on fire.  It was like—like standing right next to a tree when it gets hit by the lightning.  Every hair on my arms was standing straight up.  And then the angel said, 'I have good news for you, for you and for all the people.  Messiah has come!"

"He said that we would find him in Bethlehem, swaddled and lying in a feed trough," Kaleb added.  He closed his eyes, squinting and frowning as if struggling to remember the exact words.  "'To you is born this day in David's city a savior, Messiah Adonai.'"

"And then," said the youngest of the six, who had been the first to arrive and the last to speak, "hundreds of angels, thousands maybe—I don't know—the sky was suddenly filled with them, all praising God in a voice like—like a flood!  'Glory to El-Elyon!'  And then, 'Shalom, shalom, shalom.'"

Shalom.  Maryam lifted her head at the word, her lips moving soundlessly as she repeated it to herself.  Since the angel had come to her nine months ago, she had not known peace.  Would that change now that the promised one lay cradled at her breast?  Not for the first time, I found myself wondering what his arrival meant.  The Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.  Until the entrance of the shepherds with their unbelievable story, everything that had happened tonight had seemed so ordinary—unpleasant, yes, and not the circumstances I'd have chosen for Maryam's delivery, but in all respects completely mundane.  Her pains, the blood, the tiny baby's first gasp for air, his wrinkled red face, his cries of hunger... all were exactly like any other birth, weren't they?  And looking at them now, the young mother with her newborn son suckling at the teat, it was impossible to see anything more than that.

And yet, these strangers who had come to pay homage argued otherwise.  These were no mystics, given to flights of fancy.  They were shepherds, grounded in the realities of life.  What they described was miraculous, nothing less, and the testimony of these solid peasants convinced me more than anything else that my dream had indeed come from the throne of God.  Until this moment, I hadn't realized how strongly I'd doubted that.  Laughing out loud, I admitted to myself for the first time that I had believed the dream—believed Maryam—only because I had wanted to believe, only because the alternative to belief was too terrible to accept.  Deep down inside, I'd been sure that she was lying, and the dream was the product of my own desires, nothing more.  But now...

I waited until the shepherds had departed, until the baby was sound asleep, until Maryam herself was drowsing.  Then, as I tucked a blanket around my bride—my virtuous, innocent, and godly bride—I whispered into her ear.  "I love you, Mari.  Thank you so much for allowing me to be a part of this.  We both know how unworthy I am."  I kissed her gently on the cheek.  Almost I lay down beside her, but the time for that had not yet come.  Taking the rake with me, I stretched out across the entrance to the stable and fell asleep with the light of the star raining down upon me.

This story is excerpted from The Carpenter. If you have enjoyed it, be sure to read the rest of the novel. Just click on the link at the top of this page to order your copy today! Thank you, and have a blessed Christmas.

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