It’s cold this morning in Bethlehem as the innkeeper surveys his household and finds that all is ready. “I will make a lot of money today,” he thinks to himself. He can hear the preparations of his wife and daughter as they ready the food that travelers will want later in the day. He smiles, his pride obvious as he bites into a fresh fig from the garden. His father owned this house before him, but it was Paul who worked hard to fix it up to make it into a rest stop for travelers. Even at slow times, there was always one or two people passing through and staying. His little inn had gained a following and the wealthier travelers came back year after year. The food was good and plentiful, the rooms very clean, he insisted on cleanliness.
This week was different though, the Emperor, Caesar Augustus had ordered a census to be taken and people were coming from miles around to be counted as citizens of Bethlehem. Families who hadn’t been home in decades would travel to be counted tomorrow. Paul smacked his lips greedily and grinned at the thought of the silver coins he would count by the end of the week.
Paul was a good man, he went to temple and tried to follow the Law of Moses and be fair in all his dealings, but he couldn’t help but be excited at the prospect of the money he would earn in the next few days. The only blemish on his sunny thoughts was a falling out he had had with his brother Joaquin several years earlier. They who had been so close now didn’t speak, there had been a disagreement after their father had died. He could barely remember what it had been about, but he remembered feeling very angry and disrespected. They had all lived under the same roof when Papa was alive, their young children more like brothers and sisters than cousins. During the argument terrible words were exchanged, words that couldn’t be taken back, there was great anger between them and Paul didn’t know how to make peace. He was further annoyed that Joaquin who knew Paul better than anyone could judge him so harshly, Joaquin should have understood and forgiven him. Suddenly he thought to himself, “Should I have forgiven him first?” He’d studied the words of Torah as a child and knew the lesson of Cain when he said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Perhaps I should have reached out to him as the law instructed. But then it was too late, Joaquin and his family had moved far away from Bethlehem and the years had passed, their children didn’t even know each other anymore. Paul knew his brother had returned to Bethlehem with his family for the census and that they were staying with friends just down the road. This was a further insult to Paul, but he was tired of thinking about it and getting angry. Sometimes it saddened him, Joaquin had been his best friend, they had shared sleeping quarters when they were children and spent weeks camping out together tending sheep in the fields. He smiled at the memory of one particular hot day when they were bored and began to hurl figs at each other across the field, aiming at one another’s head. Running around and laughing so hard, until Papa had come along and Joaquin had hit him in the back. That was the end of that. Paul threw the rest of his half-eaten fig into the garden as if throwing it at his brother long ago. He decided to put Joaquin out of his mind for the moment. There was too much to do to get ready for the crowds who would be here before he knew it. “Hmm, maybe we can fit one more sleeping pallet in the hall to accommodate another visitor…”
Several hours later, Paul was exhausted, it was very late and all the weary travelers had been fed. His wife, Sarah and his children had been run ragged trying to please the rowdy crowd. Now, however, just a few men sat around the fire drinking wine and talking quietly, most had gone to their rooms. Some were reading and a card game was going on in one corner. Paul was about to start up the stairs to bed, when he heard one more knock at the door. His wife Sarah met his eyes across the room, she looked warningly at him. “There’s no more room” she mouthed as he began to move toward the door, the house was bursting at the seams with people. Sarah loved him dearly and knew he worked hard for his family, but she also knew Paul’s weakness for a few extra coins. She quickly followed him to the door to make sure he wouldn’t let anyone else in. Surely the whole town would be settled at this hour, who could it be?
As Paul opened the door, Sarah caught sight of the dark night. A few people passed by the door, fires were lit in the courtyard, some children were asleep on their parent’s laps. A man was at the door, Sarah could see in the dim light as Paul held up a candle, he was dressed modestly, obviously worn out from a long journey. The young man with the piercing eyes laid out his request, “Good evening sir, do you have any room for myself and my wife?” The young man gestured to a figure sitting on a donkey nearby. It was hard to see for the dark night, but it looked like a woman wrapped in blankets. “Sorry friend”, replied Paul, beginning to close the door, “there’s no room at the inn”. “Please sir”, the young man’s voice was stronger now, “we’ve come a very long way and my wife is with child and ready to give birth at any moment”. Not wanting to get involved and tired after his long day, Paul again refused and began to shut the door, when suddenly he felt Sarah’s hand on his arm. Something about the figure on the donkey made Sarah take notice. The veils parted as the young girl lifted her head. Their eyes met and they were full and blue, almost glowing in the dark night. A light shone in them like nothing Sarah had ever seen. “Wait, Paul”, she whispered to her husband. “But we have no rooms, protested Paul. The young man stood with his hand open expectantly, “Please, sir”. Paul looked at his wife, it was so unlike her to make exceptions. He looked back at the man and then glanced at the dim figure on the donkey. “The only thing I have left is a stable in the back where the animals sleep. It’s not much, but it will be warm and dry and at least the woman can rest”. “Thank you, sir,” the young man reached for his hand and shook it. Paul shrugged off the handshake and pointed in the direction of the old barn. “Just back there. We have finished supper, but my daughter will bring you some bread and wine. Good night.” “Good night”, Paul closed the door and Sarah patted his arm. “You and your crazy ideas, Sarah, I’m going to bed!” Sarah smiled at her husband, he really was a good man. What was it about the woman that had caught her attention? Sarah felt a shiver run up her spine, she remembered how all the women in her family had gathered around when she had given birth to her daughter, Rachel. That poor young woman, so far from home, so tired, and so alone, Sarah would make sure that they had enough food and drink in the stable, “The night is chilly, maybe I’ll take some blankets out to them as well”, she thought.
Hours later, after everyone had settled down, Paul found himself tossing and turning in his sleep and finally sat up in his bed. The room was bright as day, “What is going on?” thought Paul. He got out of bed and went to look out the window. High in the sky there appeared a star as large as he had ever seen. It seemed to pulsate as it hung over Paul’s own yard and lit up the surrounding countryside. As he looked out the window the little stable seemed to be full of activity and light. Paul quietly padded down the stairs and out to the yard. He walked slowly as if in a trance to the door of the stable, frightened and with his heart pounding, he peeked inside. A sight to behold stood before him. The young man he had spoken to earlier, knelt over the woman Paul had seen on the donkey. They were both looking down, for there in her arms was a newborn baby wrapped in his mother’s head covering. The love on the faces of the child’s parents touched Paul’s heart and his eyes filled with tears. But the strangest part of the scene were the animals, the lambs seemed to huddle close to the babe for warmth and the other animals had gathered to stand and look attentively at the scene, just as Paul was compelled to do. All eyes were on the babe and the stable seemed to radiate with a heavenly glow. As Paul stood quietly taking in the silent scene, people began to step into the old barn quietly looking, searching and then falling to their knees. Paul looked in amazement as he saw some old shepherds from the fields approach and touch the child. Suddenly there was a familiar figure by his side. Paul’s own brother Joaquin stood right beside him. He wanted to reach out and touch him, but he was afraid. He looked again at the tender scene before him. He didn’t understand what was happening or what he was witnessing, but he knew there was something special going on right here in the old stable. He took courage from the peaceful family setting and hardly daring to breathe, lifted his hand to his brother’s shoulder. Joaquin turned slowly in his direction with a wondering look on his face. Not a word was said as the two brothers embraced. Tears streamed slowly down his face as Paul held his brother close to his heart. Clasped together they turned to look again on the beautiful sight, drinking it all in. In the distance, Paul thought he heard singing…
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth
peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Copyright 2010 Maureen O’Shea
Copyright 2010 Maureen O’Shea