Friday, March 30, 2012

A Tale Twice Told


At the start of our high school years, the reading and understanding of English literature was so impressed upon us by our educators as to become an integral part of our daily living even to this day. In so doing we also unconsciously developed our own ways and styles in the use of the medium in our regular interactions with the rest of the world. And in this age of virtual reality and social networking we bring to the fore the styles that we have developed over the years of constant usage and practice. Thus, in our regular forays into, for example, Facebook, we encounter bits and pieces of literature submitted by our friends and acquaintances in the short and cryptic snippets of writings they use to describe their day, to ask about somebody else’s health, to describe the highlights of memorable trips made, to honor family members, etc. Long live, English Literature, for showing us how!

Now, as a kid fresh from grade school and being introduced to high school, our initial English Literature class was about short stories, the easily digestible form of literature that appealed to our then equally short attention span. The initial textbook for that introduction to the subject has stayed with me all these years. A thin book of about 200 pages, chock-full of short stories, to interest and regale our then young impressionable minds.

The finale selection was very memorable for its utter simplicity and taken-for-granted familiarity brought by our Christian upbringing. It was entitled A Legend of Christ. Still so memorable and emotion-stirring to this day, it deserves a repost in its entirety. Let us see if this little tale will not moisten your eyes as you ascend its climactic end. Enjoy!

A LEGEND OF CHRIST

It was a night of wondrous stars and soft sighing winds. Echoes of nature’s harmony drifted over plain and hill while the white radiance of virgin snow ermined the listening trees.

All day the roads leading into the little town of Bethlehem had been thick with travelers. It was enrollment time by order of the Emperor and so they flocked from near and far to do his bidding.

Every wayside inn was bright and alive with the jovial laughter of men – men whose pockets bulged with money – men who hadn’t a care in the world.

It was along this road that a tired and poorly clad couple jostled through the milling crowds. The man was tall and strong of frame, but his eyes were shadowed with weariness and worry. The woman – she was but a girl – was mounted on the back of a bedraggled beast of burden. She wore over her head and shoulders a dark veil, but her eyes shone with a radiance brighter than that of the brightest star.

The man spoke, “This must be the place, Mary, this must be Bethlehem. Here we will find food and a warm shelter for the night.”

Her eyes smiled in reply – a sad, yet beautiful smile – but she spoke no word. Could it be she knew the rebuffs that would be theirs at the hands of the money-crazed landlords? Could it be she knew there not be place for her and the precious Little One Who this night would be born into the world? They had come to a halt now and Joseph was speaking.

“This is a seemly place,” he said. “We shall stay here” he strode up the path to the inn door, the light from the winging arch lamp brightening his face. Mary waited at the gate in the shadows – a woman wrapped in silence. Joseph returned quickly – his step was heavy now and he showed his disappointment in the sag of his shoulders.

“They have no room for us here, Mary,” he said. He did not tell her the landlord appraising his impoverished appearance, rebuked him as a beggar and a vagrant and ordered him off the premises. Although these things gnawed at his heart and inflamed his mind, he could not worry her. Mary must not know.

“The next one will have room,” he said, with an attempt at cheerfulness. “It’s not far, just down the road a little.” In the shadows, he saw Mary’s eyes; in them there was no reproach, only patient tenderness; on her lips was the same sweet smile.

“No place for Him; no place for the Christ Child – the King of Kings” – this was the thought that burned into her heart as once more they moved into the darkness.

It was growing colder now. The winds swirled along the bleak road. Mary pulled her tattered shawl closer around her weary frame. But they were approaching another inn, this one larger and brighter than the first. Gales of boisterous laughter drifted to them across the night.

“What shall I do, if they won’t take us here,” he thought. “The night grows colder and Mary is not well. She must have warmth and rest.” They were outside the gate now and, just as before, Joseph made his way up the path. Mary waited in silence and quietly prayed in the darkness.

“Please, sir,” he said to the host at the inn door, “my wife and I must have quarters for the night. She is not well and we have no place to …” He did not finish the sentence, for the landlord cut in sharply.

“What do you want with us – you – you beggar. This is not a charity house. We cater only to gentlemen here. Away with you and be quick.”

A little child, half hidden in a nearby doorway, heard the landlord’s abuse and saw Joseph turn dejectedly away. She had been watching Mary too, drawn by some mysterious force to the silent lady whose face she could see like a star in the darkness.

“Dear Lady,” she said, running to her and wrapping her own thin shawl about Mary’s stooped shoulders, “this will keep the cold away ‘till we get to my house. You both can stay there. My father will let you.”

Mary’s eyes found the anxious little face and smiled. The child had never seen such a heavenly smile, she held out her hand.

“Come, dear Lady,” she said, “I will lead the way.”

They had gone but a few paces when a man strode out of the darkness. The child saw him first.

“It’s father,” she cried. “He’s come to fetch me home and you shall come too.”

The father’s voice was loud and angered. “Where have you been child? Go to your home at one, or I will….”

“Father,” the little one interrupted, “I have brought these two poor people with me. There is no place for them to stay…and the night is so cold…say they can stay with us.”

Anger crept into the man’s face and he would have struck the child, but something in Mary’s eyes stayed his hand. He spoke and wrath flared in his voice. “I’m not in the habit of inviting beggars to stay under my roof. You shall be punished for this. Go home at once!”

Yet the child was not subdued. “But, father,” she pleaded tearfully, they’re not beggars. They’re strangers, worn and weary from the road. All they ask is one night’s shelter. Please don’t refuse.”

The irate parent turned his back and walked off into the night fouling the stillness with a muttered oath.

The little one looked hopelessly first at Mary and then at Joseph. Bitter disappointment and embarrassment burned her cheeks. She searched for words and finally stammered:

“Dear Lady, I’m sorry, sorry I could not keep my promise to you, sorry my father’s nature is sometimes cruel and unreasonable. But I will help you find shelter. I know a stable in a cave on this hill. Maybe I can build a fire there for you. It will be warm at least and you will be out of the chill damp of the night.” Her eyes pleaded as she spoke. “Do you want me to lead the way?”

Wearily, Joseph nodded assent. Mary said no word, but, as they trudged toward the hillside, the little one’s eyes never left the sweet radiance that shone on Mary’s face. They found the cave quickly. Joseph and the child made a resting place of straw and rags for Mary. The Queen of Heaven unwanted by a forgetful world lay at peace in a deserted stable in Bethlehem. The child was standing now beside Joseph. And, though the atmosphere was damp and chilly, where Mary lay was haloed with a warm, almost heavenly radiance. Her face was beautiful beyond compare. The child spoke:

“You will forgive me, dear Lady, for not finding a better place. You could have had my bed, if my father had so allowed.” She paused momentarily. “You are so beautiful, dear Lady, so like a Queen.” Rapture shone in her eyes. “I must go now lest my father whip me. I will pray God to watch over you both tonight.”

“Child,” answered Mary, “God will bless you for your kindness and He will watch over us all – tonight and always. Go to your home now and have no fear; your father will not harm you.” Then she smiled and the cave was a glory of heavenly light.

The child was gone now. As she ran down the hillside, her heart was filled with a joy greater than she had ever known before. She even fancied as she ran that she could hear music, heavenly music and voices from the land beyond the stars. But it wasn’t fancy, it was fact, for at that very hour, back in the little stable, Mary had brought forth a Son…Jesus, the Prince of Peace and Love was born and there was music everywhere in the world…


* * *

More than thirty years had passed since that night in Bethlehem….

“And it came to pass that He came nigh to the city called Naim…and when he came nigh to the city, behold a dead man was carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.” Christ looked at the lifeless body of the young man for a while, and at the young widowed mother, weeping nearby. He lifted His hand in blessing over the mother and said:

“Weep not, woman. Your son is not dead. He but sleeps.” Then, drawing near, He commanded those who carried the bier to place it on the ground. He took the young boy by the hand, and in a voice of authority, cried out:

“Young man, I say to you, arise.”

Amazed, the people watched the boy rise up and clasp his joyous mother into his arms. She fell on her knees in thanksgiving before the Master and her tears bathed His feet. Christ lifted her tenderly and said very gently:

“It was not I who gave you back your son, but my Mother whom you befriended one night many years ago in a little town called Bethlehem.”