To Bethlehem: my Christmas gift to you

To Bethlehem

(Angels: Michael, Gabriel, Shachal, Basar, Tam and Avad. Remember, when you entertain a stranger, there is always that chance…)

In the dawn of the morning, Mary and Joseph woke to find that they were alone. Joseph rose to heat their morning’s meal and to break camp while Mary remained seated, resting by the warm coals of their recent fire.
“How far did we travel last night?” Mary asked as she kneaded the muscles in her lower back.
Joseph continued to pack the donkeys as he spoke. “We are a few miles east of Jerusalem. By late this afternoon we should see the walls of Bethlehem.”
Mary smiled tiredly at her husband. His face looked more haggard than usual, and she knew he was fighting not to frown. His concern for her was obvious, and Mary did not want to add to his burden. If she told him she was in labor, and that their son would surely be born this very night, she was afraid he might insist they travel no further.
Just as she started to speak, she heard her husband give a shout of welcome. Looking down the trail that would have taken them to Jerusalem, Mary saw Michael. He was leading a small donkey, and the smile on his face was one of joy.
“Michael,” Joseph laughed as he stepped forward to embrace his friend. “We were afraid you had deserted us.”
Michael stepped forward to return Joseph’s embrace. Then he looked down at Mary, a knowing smile softening his features.
“I would never forsake you,” Michael spoke sincerely with some surprise in his voice. “My friend met me in Jerusalem before dawn this morning and told me where you were camped. I brought you some supplies.”
“Michael,” Mary sighed softly, “you are a blessing.” Trying to rise to her feet, she found she could not. Instead, Michael knelt beside her and looked deeply within her spirit.
“He will be born this night,” was all he said, in a hushed voice so only her ears could hear.
“Yes. But I do not wish Joseph to know until we are closer to Bethlehem.”
“Then I will not tell him,” Michael replied as he watched Joseph tying the last of the blankets onto the donkey that would carry his wife. “You will know when it is best.”
“Are you traveling with us into Bethlehem?” Joseph asked as he finished making a wide, soft pallet for his wife to ride upon.
“A few miles from the outer walls I am to meet my friends. I will leave you there, knowing you have made your journey safely.”
“We are safe because of you and your friend,” Joseph said sincerely. “He left this morning before we could thank him once again.” Joseph’s voice trailed off as he looked down at Mary. The memories from the night before would stay with him forever.
“I will tell him of your thanks,” Michael replied. “It will be a blessing.”
Nodding his head, Joseph leaned down and with Michael’s help brought Mary to her feet. Both men stared at her as if they were afraid she would break.
“I am fine,” Mary said with a soft laugh. “Quit looking at me with so much concern. If you should be concerned for anyone, it should be my poor donkey. Look at the weight he has to carry!” Laughing, Mary walked over to the donkey with an exaggerated waddle. “When we reach Bethlehem, husband, I want you to pamper this donkey like he belongs to a king.”
“That I will,” Joseph said as he lifted his wife onto the donkey’s small back.
Michael stood silently and watched as Joseph positioned Mary until she was as comfortable as she could be. Slowly, he walked over to the donkey and looked into the animal’s large, soft eyes. Quietly, the angel of the Lord leaned over and spoke into the donkey’s long ear.
“You are carrying the King of kings on your back, little one,” Michael said as he gently stroked the long nose. “And for that, you will always be remembered.” With a firm pat on the neck, Michael turned from the donkey and gathered up the reigns of the pack animals. It was time to enter Bethlehem.

Just a few miles from the entrance to Bethlehem, Mary noticed a group of men standing beneath the wide branches of a tree. Even from a distance, Mary could see the men were warriors, and as she squinted against the sun, she thought she recognized one of them as Michael’s friend.
Mary wanted to tell Joseph that she thought she saw Michael’s friends up ahead, but it was impossible to speak. The pains were becoming more frequent and much harsher. At times during the day she had thought she was carrying a sharp knife embedded deeply within the muscles of her lower back and abdomen. If she spoke, she knew it would be on a groan.
“Your friends, Michael,” Joseph called back over his shoulder. “I believe they are just ahead waiting for you.” Michael was walking with the two pack donkeys behind Mary and Joseph. Joseph had stayed by his wife’s side throughout the day, helping to balance Mary’s weight.
“We will meet them under the tree,” Michael called back as he stared across the field to meet Gabriel’s eyes. His brother and his warriors were standing patiently in the shade. Even from this distance, he was sure Joseph and Mary could see the huge smile that spread across Basar’s face.

“She is in pain,” Avad said to Tam as he watched the approach of the virgin mother. “Soon, the King will be born.”
Tam nodded his head in agreement. “Gabriel said it will be this night.”
“She is a woman of great strength and courage. If the birth is hard, she will not fear,” Basar said as he grinned widely. To him, courage and strength were essential, especially for the children of God who had to live on Lucifer’s planet.
“Last night she had the courage of Esther,” Shachal said to his brothers. “She stared Lucifer down and spoke the Word of God as a warrior of heaven. She is a woman of great worth!”
Shachal’s voice softened as all three warriors silently watched Mary’s approach.

Michael left the donkeys to stand beside Joseph and Mary as he walked forward to meet Gabriel. “Brother,” he said with a bone-crushing embrace. “The King will be born this night! Even now Mary labors, trying to keep the worst of her pains from her husband.”
“The Lord will be born this night,” Gabriel agreed.
“Is everything in readiness?” Michael asked as he looked back over his shoulder to Mary. He saw that she was bent over the donkey’s neck; Joseph’s arms supported her.
“I sent Shachal ahead when I saw your approach. He is securing the manger and stirring the hearts of Joseph’s family. They will be prepared for the birth when Mary arrives in Bethlehem.”
“Then I will go to Joseph and explain my departure.” Michael turned from Gabriel and walked to Joseph’s side. He knew it would be difficult to explain that he could go with them no further.

“I do not know how to thank you,” Joseph said to Michael as the two men embraced. “Our Lord has protected us with your presence and with that of the stranger who came to us earlier on. Without the two of you by our side, I fear we would not have made it to Bethlehem.”
“My husband is right, Michael. Our Lord sent two mighty warriors to protect us and guide us, and we are eternally grateful.” A deep groan suddenly flew from Mary’s mouth as she doubled over in pain. She could no longer hide her labor from her husband. If they did not reach Bethlehem soon, she feared she could not stay balanced upon the donkey—and walking was already impossible.
“My prayers will go before you,” Michael said as he gripped Mary’s hand. “And remember,” he quietly whispered, “you are the mother of the King.”
Tears filled Mary’s eyes as Joseph led her away. As they passed close by the tree where Michael stood with his friends, Mary glanced up to wave good-bye. It was then she noticed the young man who stood by Michael’s side. He looked so very familiar—it was something about his eyes. They were crystal blue and full of compassion. Mary was sure she had looked into those eyes at least once before.

“Mary,” Joseph said, the tension in his voice making his words sound strained. “We will have to go into the square to reach my brother’s house. They should be expecting us. I could go by myself for help, but I cannot leave you alone.” The fear in Joseph’s voice made Mary look up into her husband’s face.
“Lead me into the market square,” she said as she bit heavily down upon her bottom lip. She felt as if she were ripping inside, so great were her pains. “I can remain there while you find your brother.”
Joseph just stared at his wife. He felt as if everything had spiraled out of his control. He could not imagine leaving Mary in the open square. Even from here they could hear the clamor of confusion and shouts of anger as travelers pushed their way into every inch of space. Bethlehem, usually a small hamlet of no more than three hundred people, had swollen to an unimaginable number. The census had brought families in from far and wide, and the chaos of so many trying to find a place to sleep for the night was beyond belief. How could he subject his wife to such a mob?
“I cannot leave you,” Joseph whispered, his distress palpable.
“If you do not, our child will be born in the dirt of the street! Even now He pushes against me, tearing to get out.” Mary’s moans sounded like those of a hurt animal. As Joseph watched, a small trickle of fresh blood seeped from a cut on Mary’s lip to trail down her chin.
Joseph didn’t say a word. He knew Mary was right. It was just that he felt so helpless! With one hand on his wife, and the other holding the reins of his donkey, Joseph led Mary through the open gates.

Carefully, Joseph walked beside Mary toward the entrance where a pair of Roman sentries stood guard. The guards were dressed in short suits of leather armor studded with bronze. Crested helmets rested on top their heads, and identical double-edged swords hung by their sides. Each soldier gripped a long javelin in one hand; the other hand supporting a large shield that covered most of one side. Joseph noticed that their full red cloaks—attached at the shoulders and falling to their knees—floated lightly in the cold breeze of sunset. The guards were there to make sure order was upheld and pickpockets and thieves were discouraged. Still, Joseph felt vulnerable with Mary at his side.

Mary was trying hard not to let Joseph see how very scared she was. Ever since she had become a woman, her mother had tried to prepare her for being a wife and a mother. There was little about childbirth she didn’t know—except for how great the pain was. It was a living pulse inside of her that struck with every beat of her heart. Take a breath—pain. Let out a breath—more pain. It was endless, just like the beating of her heart.
Just breathe, she kept telling herself as they slowly made their way into the market square. But even the smells were unbearable. The fresh air of the open countryside was gone. In its place was the musty scent of sweating horses, steaming camel dung, and braying donkeys. The animal’s combined odors, in addition to countless unwashed bodies, clogged the crowed square until even the smallest breath was tainted.
The marketplace itself was a literal sea of humanity as people of every description—wealthy Egyptian Jews, Roman soldiers and officials, and poor peasants and craftsmen from rural Judea, Galilee, and Perea—all pushed, shoved, and shouted to be heard over the sounds of other people and animals. But loudest of all were the merchants—with the gleam of gold in their eyes—hawking their wares of food and provisions at triple their normal price. It was into this chaos and filth that Joseph led his precious wife.

No matter how desperately Joseph tried to protect Mary, people, both young and old, pushed against her, oblivious to her pregnancy. Joseph knew the inn which had been built in the time of King David would be at the center of all the chaos, so he tried to avoid being pushed in that direction. Already, he could make out the heated exchange between a wealthy, aristocratic man and the innkeeper. The man was demanding a room for himself and his family, offering an outlandish price that Joseph could never hope to match. Vainly, the innkeeper kept shouting that he had no room; that in fact, there was no room anywhere for anyone to sleep. Joseph tried to lead Mary away to the far side of the marketplace before the furious curses of the two men turned into a violent fight.
Everywhere Joseph looked—from the flat rooftops to the tight alleyways—there were people sitting, standing, lying on pallets of straw, and squatting in the dirt. Humanity was everywhere, yet no one came forward to offer their help. It seemed to Joseph that doors as well as hearts were being slammed in his face as he tried to maneuver Mary and the donkeys up against a small space of wall across from the public well. There, at least, he felt she should be protected as the Roman census takers had set up their tables under the shade of the lone tree that sheltered the well.
“This is the safest place I can find,” Joseph said as he carefully lifted Mary down from the back of the donkey.
“My brother’s home is behind his shop, maybe three or four rooftops back. I will hurry, Mary, but the crowd is so thick.” Joseph looked around with apprehension. Not one person would meet his eyes; everyone wanted to ignore the woman who was so obviously in labor.
“I can’t leave you,” Joseph now said in anger. “Your pain is so great you can barely stand!”
Mary looked up at her husband. She was afraid that if he released her she would fall on her knees in the dust of the courtyard. She noticed the unfamiliar look of panic in Joseph’s eyes and her heart went out to him. Praying for strength, she took a shaky breath and spoke.
“Leave me, please, Joseph. The Lord will protect us. Our Son will not be born until the appointed hour. Please ….” Mary’s voice trailed off into a guttural moan, making Joseph realize he was wasting precious time.
“I’ll hurry. I promise, Mary. I’ll hurry.” Turning from her side, Joseph pushed and shoved his way across the square, all but knocking strangers from his path. “Please, God,” he prayed as he turned one last time to look back at his wife, “please don’t leave her alone.”

Basar stood in front of Mary with every weapon drawn. He knew it was overkill, but he couldn’t help it.
“Lucifer and his demons are imprisoned, Basar. Didn’t Gabriel tell you?” Tam glanced over at Basar, noticing that both his sword and his battle-ax were clenched in one hand.
“And what of these ruffians,” Basar asked? “The square is filled with pickpockets and thieves. If one tries to near our Lord’s mother, I will make my presence known!” Basar dug the point of his javelin into the dirt, creating a barrier between Mary and those who hurried by.
“It won’t be long, my brother,” Tam said with compassion, reaching over Mary and the little donkey to place his hand on Basar’s shoulder. “Soon, the child who will one day be a great warrior will arrive. Avad is whispering into his heart, preparing his young spirit as we speak.”
Basar jerked his head, letting Tam know he had heard him. “I wish I could take her pain, Tam,” Basar said quietly. “She is so small and she seems so helpless, but …” and here Basar turned and stared at Mary, a fierce pride gleaming in his dark brown eyes, “… she has the strength and courage of a lioness. She will be a wonderful mother to our Lord.”
“Yes,” Tam answered. “Her heart is strong and filled with the love of God.”
Just then, Mary’s knees buckled as a sharp cry flew from her lips. Throwing her arms out, she gripped the neck of her donkey just before she fell.
“There,” Tam whispered. “Look there, Basar.”
Basar turned his head to look in the direction Tam was pointing. A slow smile started to turn up one corner of his mouth, even though tears were flowing freely from his eyes.

Mary didn’t know how much longer she could stand the pain. Finally, she had to double over—one hand still clutching the mane of the donkey for support—as her unborn child gripped and pushed, bearing down inside of her with incredible force.
“Oh, God,” Mary whimpered, “I am afraid.” Lowering her head into the dust of the street, Mary let her tears fall as she frantically grasped her belly, desperately trying to soothe her unborn child. And then, from far away, through the harsh roaring in her ears, Mary thought she heard her name being called.
“Mamma …”
There it was again. Someone was calling her name. In a daze, Mary thought she heard …
Sharp spears of pain were knifing through her abdomen with such frequency that Mary had kept her eyes closed for some time. Now, she tried to open them and see who was speaking. The word she had heard was so hushed that Mary was surprised her ears had picked up the familiar call over the deafening sounds of the crowd. Just as she was opening her eyes, trying to take a deep breath in the few seconds where the pain was receding, she felt someone touch her hand. It was a soft touch—a tender touch—like the loving touch of a child.

Basar and Tam watched as the little boy made his way to Mary’s side and knelt in the filth of the marketplace. His large eyes fringed in thick lashes stared at Mary as she doubled over in pain, her groans hissing between tightly clenched teeth. Naturally, with the innocence of one who recognized someone in pain, the little boy spoke to Mary, his tone so sweet and clear it rose above the harsh clamoring of a thousand voices.
For a second time, the angels heard the child speak. Then they watched as Mary tried to raise her head to see who had spoken to her. That one, simple movement seemed impossible.
“The child has eyes to see, Basar. He knows that Mary needs him,” Tam said as he, too, finally allowed his tears to flow.
“He is a child with the heart of God,” Basar whispered, as he watched the little boy reach out and place his small, chubby arms around Mary’s swollen belly; then he lowered his soft cheek to rest over her womb.

Mary gasped when she felt the touch of a gentle hand. Slowly, she lifted her head and tried to raise the swollen lids of her eyes. When she did, she gasped once again.
The small face of a young child was staring at her. A ghost of a smile was playing across his mouth, yet his round eyes were filled with tears. As Mary silently gazed into his face, the little boy reached out and placed his bare arms around her hard abdomen. Just as another contraction began to tear into her body, he laid his head down upon her; his embrace was for her unborn child.
“Mamma …” he breathed softly as the hard bands of childbirth tightened beneath Mary’s tunic.
Without thinking, Mary reached out and placed her hands on top of the child’s head, feeling the soft spring of curls beneath her fingers. As the contractions intensified, Mary felt the child’s arms squeeze around her. Panting in harsh, ragged breaths, Mary rode the wave of pain, concentrating on the fierce hug that held her so protectively. And then the pain started to fade, receding into the tired muscles that held her child in the womb. Exhausted, yet wanting the feel of a child against her breast, Mary pulled the little boy across her belly and hugged him as if he were her own.

Mary recognized the voice of a mother in panic.
“Is your name Timothy, little one?” Mary asked the child.
The little boy didn’t answer, though his arms continued to tighten about her.
Before Mary could ask him again, a vicious punch of white-hot pain gripped her insides. Instinctively, the little boy grabbed Mary’s neck and hung on as Mary rocked forward. Almost immediately, the pain started to subside, but in its wake was the knowledge that soon her Son would be born.

“Timothy!” The cry was closer now, and Mary could tell the direction from which it came. Raising her eyes to look over the top of the child’s head, Mary thought she saw Joseph frantically pushing his way through the tight mass of people and animals. Beside him was a woman, her head whipping to the right and the left as if she were searching for someone.
“Joseph …” Mary’s voice was weak, and she knew her husband could not possibly have heard it.
“Joseph …” she called once again, realizing he might not be able to see her as she squatted in the dirt with the little boy in her arms. It was then Mary felt something inside of her shift, like a wall of pressure building and expanding. The next thing she felt was the wetness that began to soak through both her tunic and robe. Realizing what had just happened, Mary tried one last time to scream Joseph’s name. The time had come, her womb was opening, and soon she would feel the weight of her own Son nestled in her arms.

Tam and Basar began to clear the path that would lead Joseph and his sister-in-law to Mary’s side. The sun was setting behind the hills of Judea and the shadows were lengthening beneath the walls of Bethlehem, so every person in the open square was darting about, chaotically trying to claim a place to bed down for the night. With calm precision, Tam and Basar directed the feet of the crowds away from Mary and the child so Joseph could plainly see them.

“There. Hannah, there!” Joseph yelled, grabbing his sister-in-law’s arm to lead her in the right direction. “Isn’t that Timothy with his arms around Mary’s neck?” Joseph had a firm grip on Hannah, pulling her along as he raced to Mary’s side.
“Oh, Joseph,” Hannah puffed out as she tried to keep up with her brother-in-law. Hot tears streamed from Hannah’s eyes as she saw the young girl, so obviously in the last stages of labor, bent over the small form of her son. It was hard for Hannah to tell who was actually holding on to whom.
As she called her son’s name once more, Timothy looked up, his dark eyes directly piercing into those of his mother. Startled, Hannah realized her young son was fiercely trying to protect Mary, holding on to her as if the responsibility for her safety was his and his alone. As he was less than three years of age, Hannah didn’t understand how that was possible.

Avad joined Tam and Basar to make certain the last of the crowd was parting to let Joseph and Hannah through.
“Look at the little warrior,” Avad said as Hannah reached down to pry him from Mary’s arms. “Even with his mother near, he does not want to release Mary.” Looking back at Tam and Basar, he spoke like a proud father. “When I called him, he did not hesitate. His heart opened like a new flower at the sound of my words. Did you see how he flew directly to Mary’s side? One day, he will be a fierce warrior for the Kingdom.”
Basar and Tam both nodded their heads in agreement. “The little one is mighty,” Tam added. “Already I know he is a great joy to the Father.”
“He will be one to watch through the ages,” Basar said as they watched Hannah trying to hold on to Timothy. The little boy was creating quite a fuss, trying to stay by Mary’s side. “Though I am afraid he will be a handful for his mother.”
The angels quietly watched as Hannah finally gave up and slung Timothy over her shoulder like a sack of grain. With her free hand she grabbed the reins of the two donkeys and quickly headed in the direction of her husband’s house. Joseph, with Mary in his arms, rapidly followed.

When Mary awoke, she knew she was in Joseph’s arms. Vaguely, she became aware of voices—high pitched and anxious—talking back and forth across a wide, open space.
“Hannah, where do I place Mary?” Her husband’s voice sounded nervous, and Mary felt his arms tightening about her as he spoke.
“There is a pallet of fresh straw made for her in the back of the manger. The boys have cleared an area and dug a small pit. They are gathering wood for a fire. Lay Mary down and leave her to us, Joseph. Until the babe comes, there is nothing you can do.” Hannah turned away from Joseph and ran to the mouth of the deep cave. “Boys,” she called into the bright, star-filled night. “Bring the wood in now!”
Mary groaned as Joseph tried to lay her down upon the soft blankets that covered the thick mound of hay. “Do not leave me, my husband,” she whispered, tightly gripping the sleeve of Joseph’s robe.
“Mary …” The sound of Joseph’s voice made Hannah pause at the entrance to the cave; it was a voice very obviously filled with love.
Mary tried to speak, but just then a great explosion of pain tore into her back, bowing her hips upward and arching her rounded belly off her blanket of hay.
“Hannah,” Joseph yelled as he squeezed Mary’s hand just a little too hard.
“Breathe,” Hannah spoke softly up against Mary’s ear. “Let the pain wash over you. Don’t fight it, Mary. It is God’s way of letting you know that soon you will hold your child.”
Mary turned her eyes toward the woman. She knew she had never seen her before.
“I am Hannah,” she whispered calmly to Mary. “I am the wife of Joseph’s brother. You were holding my son Timothy in your arms when I came to you.” Smiling gently, she reached out and soothed Mary’s forehead with a cloth dipped in cool water. Brushing the damp hair back from Mary’s face, she continued.
“Joseph reached our house and told us he had to leave you in the square. I sent my husband to ready the manger for your birth. Our home is overflowing with family, so we could not isolate the spare room for your delivery. I hope you understand.”
“I am so grateful, Hannah, that you are with me.” Trying to relax back upon the hay, Mary looked around the dimly lit manger. The cave was deep, with high ceilings, and smelled of freshly cut hay. Vaguely she could hear the snuffling and soft lowing of cattle, sheep, and donkeys. The sounds were familiar to her and brought her a sense of comfort.
Before she could speak again, another labor pain gripped her. Trying not to scream, Mary threw her hand out in hopes of catching Hannah’s in a comforting grip. Instead, she felt Timothy’s baby-like hand firmly latch on to her fingers.
“He refused to leave you, Mary. He knows you are going to be a mamma, and every time I try to place him in his father’s arms he screams. I don’t believe he can be forced from your side without a fight.”
From far away, Mary listened to Hannah’s soft words, allowing the music of her voice to wash over her like a soothing rain. She did not want Timothy to go. Something about the little boy’s presence brought her strength. Finally, when the contraction started to wind down, Mary spoke.
“Please. Let him stay,” Mary said as she tried to smile into the face of the little warrior. Then, she heard the voice of her husband.
“Hannah,” Joseph spoke as he walked toward the fire pit, his arms loaded with the dry wood the boys had gathered. “I have the hot coal to start the fire, and the young girls are bringing the water. “Please,” he said, his worried eyes darting to Mary, “tell me what else I can do.”
Hannah rose from beside Mary and walked over to where Joseph stood. “Your child will be born this night, but there is nothing more you can do. Go, Joseph,” she said, gently ushering him toward the mouth of the cave. “Go and be with the men. We will call you when your child is born.”
Joseph walked over to Mary and knelt down. Leaning over Timothy, he kissed his wife on her forehead, wiping away the sweat of her brow with his lips. “Tonight, Jesus will be born. I will not be far, Mary; just beyond the mouth of the cave. When I hear the cries of our Son, I will come to you.”
Joseph stood up and looked down at his wife. She looked so young—so small—and the sight of her in so much pain was almost his undoing. Swiftly turning before she could see the tears flowing down his face, he walked out of the manger and into the night.

“It is a silent night,” Michael said as he hovered with his brothers high above, within the canopy of the first heaven.
“All of heaven is holding its breath,” Gabriel responded, turning to the north to look into the Realm of Glory. “The Father is seated upon His throne, and not a voice can be heard.”
“The light of the star is causing all of Judea to speak. Those who do not know the Scriptures are afraid of its light.” Shachal spoke in a whisper as he slowly moved his wings back and forth, just barely causing the winds to stir around him. He, too, felt like holding his breath, so great was his anticipation.
“Have you sent Basar, Brother, into the second heaven?” Michael looked over his shoulder, seeing only Tam and Avad. Both angels were so silent and still Michael could barely sense their presence.
“Basar is in the depths of the second heaven, waiting for my declaration. There will be no doubt as to his presence once he opens his mouth.” Gabriel smiled at Michael. Both of the brothers loved the sound of Basar’s rumbling voice when he proclaimed the Good News of Gabriel’s announcements into the far reaches of the universe. It was like listening to the deep, rich tones of a huge bell ringing in a watchtower.
“Do you know the time of His birth?” Michael asked as he watched Mary labor for the life of their Lord.
“Only the Father knows,” Gabriel said softly. And then the two brothers were silent.

Hannah had done all she could to prepare for the birth of Mary’s child. The back of the cave was now warm and lit by the light of the fire, and the numerous clay lamps filled with olive oil were placed inside the shallow niches carved into the walls. An extra jar of oil was close by in case she needed it, as were large jugs of fresh water. The water in the iron pot that hung over the fire was softly boiling, filling the air with the aroma of herbs that had been thrown in to simmer.
The young girls had unpacked all of Mary’s linens and stacked them into the basket Hannah had brought from the house. Everything she needed to complete the birth was at her fingertips, including the long, wooden trough that had been cleaned and scrubbed until the wood actually shone. The trough had been made by Joseph and his brother when they were just young boys learning to be carpenters at their father’s knee, and Hannah thought Mary would appreciate the sentiment of placing her child in it, on a soft bed of hay, to sleep.
“Mamma?” Hannah brought her thoughts back to the present.
“Yes, Timothy.”
“Baby?” Timothy’s small head of curls rested beside Mary’s arm. Over and over he had been rubbing the palm of his hand in small circles across Mary’s abdomen.
“Yes, my love—baby. And I believe it will not be much longer.”

Joseph stood outside the mouth of the manger with his brother and numerous other family members. For warmth, and to keep away any stray animals, a large bonfire had been built. No matter how tall and bright the flames were the light of the fire was lusterless against the intense glow of the huge star that hung directly over the manger.
“I have never seen anything like it, have you?” Joseph’s brother asked as he shielded his eyes to gaze upward. “Not even the shepherds will fear this night. The light is so great they will be able to see clearly for miles. What do you think it is, Brother?” he asked as he turned to Joseph.
Joseph thoughtfully gazed out over the hills of Bethlehem. In the distance, he could hear the bleating of the sheep as the shepherds tried to settle them for the night. My brother is right, he thought, as he glanced up into the light of the star. There will be no shadows this night for evil to hide within.
“It is the light that guided us out of the valley of shadows and into Bethlehem,” Joseph said to his brother. “That is all I know, but it is enough—and I am grateful.”
Then, in the gap of time where two men are trying to figure out what to speak of next … Mary screamed.

Someone had a hot knife and they were gutting her! Mary knew her thoughts were foolishness, but as she rose off her pallet, grabbing her stomach as she screamed, it was the only feeling that made sense. Desperately, her eyes flew around the dancing shadows that painted the manger walls from top to bottom. Where was Hannah? Hannah! Hannah! Mary’s words were unspoken as her screams shattered the silent night.
“I am here, Mary,” Hannah crooned as if singing a lullaby. “I’m right here, little one. It will not be much longer.”
Mary tried to sit up, straining for a glimpse of Hannah, who she now realized was sitting at her feet. With a grinding moan, she fell back upon her blanket. Calmly, deliberately, Timothy reached his tiny hand up to Mary and bathed her flushed face. The cool water trickled down Mary’s cheeks and wetted her cracked lips.
“Give her more water, please, Timothy, then go tell your father to bring Miriam.”
Timothy brought the wet cloth to Mary’s lips for her to suck on; then he ran from the manger to tell his father to fetch his older sister. If Miriam is coming that means the baby is almost here, Timothy thought as he kicked up his small heels and raced to find his father.

“She is tired, Daughter,” Hannah said to Miriam as she went to sit behind Mary. “You will have to lean her up and support her shoulders when it is time to push.” Hannah kneaded Mary’s stomach with her strong fingers, trying to tell if the child was in the right position.
“There,” she whispered to Mary. “There is a foot. His head is down, Mary. Now it is time to push.” Hannah leaned over to look into Mary’s face. The poor girl was exhausted. It was nothing short of a miracle that she had not given birth somewhere in the mountains. Hannah was amazed that one so young could be so brave.
“Now, Miriam,” Hannah said. “Raise her up. Timothy. Back away from Mary. You cannot help her now.” Looking up and over the hard mound of Mary’s belly, Hannah spoke in a firm, commanding voice.
“Push, Mary! Push …!”

Heaven was expanding with every beat of its heart. Greater than—more than—increasing! The pulse of the Realm of Glory was growing louder; yet all else was silent.

Gabriel’s eyes flew upward, seeing Basar as he stood powerfully against the darkness of the outer universe. His weapons were no longer in sight; his wide wings were stretched out fully across an endless space, and his tight fists were crossed and clenched against his chest. Dark eyes filled with purpose and awe were boring into Gabriel’s.

Michael, with Shachal, Tam, and Avad by his side, remained almost motionless, his wings barely stirring the cold of the night. The four angels stared into the manger; the blazing light of their eyes rivaling the light of the giant star. For once, the warriors had their weapons sheathed, and only their shields were gripped in their hands. All four were silent as they deeply breathed the still air of the holy night.

“But as for you, Bethlehem.
Too little to be among the clans of Judah.
From you One will go forth from Me to be ruler of Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”

“What did you say, Brother?”
“I was quoting the prophet Micah,” Joseph whispered as he looked up into the brilliant sky. “His words are my strength; his promise what I hold on to this night.” Joseph remained staring into the skies, knowing his words must be confusing to his brother.
“They are the words of hope,” Joseph’s brother said. “We in Bethlehem hold on to the promise of the prophet’s words, knowing one day they will come to life.”
“Soon—very, very soon.” Joseph spoke with quiet conviction, not turning to meet his brother’s puzzled gaze.

Miriam had turned her back to Mary’s. Placing her feet against the wall of the cave, she used her own strength to brace Mary into a sitting position. She alone was keeping Mary upright as the child bore down upon His mother’s body.

“Push! Again … Push!”

The pulse of heaven grew stronger. Pounding waves of enormous power swelled toward the doorway of heaven, surging forward on the breath of the Father.

“Bear down, Mary. Now … Now!” The sound of Hannah’s voice pierced through Mary’s pain.
The authority of Hannah’s command slowly began to penetrate Mary’s foggy mind. The pains were now tearing into every part of Mary’s being. She felt like they were devouring her from the inside, hoping to eat their way out of her body. She knew it was only her child fighting to be born—to be born into a world that so desperately needed Him. So, for the world’s sake—for the sake of her own people—Mary pulled a ragged, deep breath into her lungs …
Gabriel snapped his wings close to his body and flew high above the manger. Standing in the light of the brilliant star, he threw his arms upward, cracked his wings out from his shoulders, and stilled his spirit. The night around him began to swell.
… and expelled it in a victorious scream, pushing her Son into the world!

All that was in existence exploded from the entrance of heaven when the Father stood to witness the birth of His Son! The life force of the Living Word erupted through the universe to crash upon the earth, shaking the foundations of time for all eternity!

“The King is born!” Gabriel’s announcement broke through the gates of hell and soared across the reaches of the earth. Not a rock was still—not a mountain unmoved.

Basar flung his arms out from his sides, his mighty wings stretching into the far reaches of the universe.
“Glory to the King of kings, who is and was and shall forever be!” The booming timbre of Basar’s voice rolled through eternity and burst through the gates of heaven.
Heaven was silent no more!

“My Son!” Joseph’s cry was heard echoing over the hills of Bethlehem. A great shout erupted from the house of David as all his family rejoiced.

“My Son,” Mary said in a voice barely above a whisper. Then Hannah placed the babe in her arms.

Michael flew to Gabriel’s side and stood looking down into the manger. The archangel had no words, so great was his wonder. There, below him, was the Savior of all mankind, resting in His mother’s arms. His eyes—ageless—stared out into the world with the wisdom of His Father. Michael turned to Gabriel, and still he could not speak.
“He is the Son of God, the image of all that is holy. There are not words enough to to speak what I feel.” Gabriel, The great Messenger of Heaven, was now speechless.
Michael could only nod his head at his brother’s words. As always, Gabriel spoke the truth.

“The star seems to have grown brighter,” the young shepherd said as he raised his free hand to shelter his eyes. “The hills look to be bathed in cold sunlight.”
“Why does it seem so much brighter over the far manger?” his older sister asked as she cradled a newborn lamb in her arms. “It is as if a spear of light has pierced the top of the cave.” Setting the lamb down at her feet, she rested her arms on the crook of her staff.
“Could we go to Benjamin? He and the other shepherds are by the fire. Our brother should know why the light is so bright. And I am cold. I need the warmth of the fire.” The young boy looked to his older sister for permission. He knew if he left his sheep without consent, he would be punished by his father.
Leaning over to pick up the small lamb, the young girl hefted her staff and gazed out over the flock of sheep. They were all peaceful, and their white coats of wool shone in the power of the star. There was no reason, she thought, why she and her brother could not go to the fire and join the other shepherds—if only for a moment.
She nodded to her brother, and the two children hurried across the hill to join their brother as he and the other shepherds stood talking by the fire.

Hannah and Miriam left Mary to be alone with her Son. Timothy’s furious screams bounced off the walls of the cave as Hannah picked him up, forcing the little boy to leave Mary’s side. At the mouth to the manger Hannah met Joseph, standing still—frozen in the bright light of the star—staring into the shadows at the back of the manger.
“Our Son?” Joseph asked, looking into Hannah’s smiling face.
“Strong and healthy and nursing at his mother’s breast,” she said, giving Joseph a fierce hug. “Mary is calling for you.”
Joseph hugged Hannah back, trying hard to find the words that would let her know how grateful he was. His thoughts were in a whirl so great was his gratitude, so he reached down and hugged her again, lifting her off her feet and spinning her once through the air. It was more than enough thanks for Hannah.
“You’re welcome,” she laughed as she turned to the path that would lead her home. The hour was late, and Hannah was very, very tired.

Basar descended to be beside his brothers. It had been only moments since the declaration of the birth of the Savior, and all of heaven was rejoicing. Basar knew the joy was becoming too great to be contained within the limitless boundaries of creation. Soon, it would have to spill forth from its gates and into the kingdom of the natural, flooding the earth with its presence. Basar couldn’t wait! Turning to his brothers, he asked if they, too, felt the overwhelming surge of power.
“Heaven cannot contain its joy,” Basar boomed his excitement.
“Soon, the earth will explode with the joy of the Lord. I can feel the Father’s presence filling the boundaries of this small planet.” Tam looked over at Gabriel and Michael when he spoke. Their eyes were still fastened upon the King.
“The veil will soon be torn between heaven and earth,” Shachal said as he turned to look through the second heaven. “Look.” All four angels turned their eyes upward to where Shachal was pointing. The gates to the portal of the third heaven were shaking.

“The Messiah,” Joseph breathed softly into the face of his Son as he bent down to lift the Child from Mary. “Out of Bethlehem has been born the King.” He spoke so softly Mary could just hear him.
“Teach us, oh Lord,” Mary said into the hushed stillness that followed Joseph’s words. “Teach us as we raise Your Son. In You, we can be all things … even the parents of the Messiah.” Sighing, Mary closed her eyes and reached for her Son. Silently, Joseph placed the sleeping child in the crook of her arm, and then lay down beside her on the soft pallet of hay.
“I give You my all, oh God. Make of me all You desire so I can teach Your Son to be the man You have predestined Him to be,” Joseph said as he touched the soft cheeks of Jesus.
“The Son of Man,” he whispered. “The Son of God,” he marveled. “The King of kings,” he said with complete conviction. And then he, too, slept.

Gabriel and Michael flew to their brothers’ side. Hovering high within the canopy of the first heaven, the angels were just below the portal to the second. Below them, Judea spread out like a beautiful shimmering blanket, its soft hills and meadows glowing beneath the crystal light of heaven’s star.
“The joy is pulsing outward,” Avad said to his brothers. “My ears are filled with the chorus of the Lord. Soon, the song of heaven will not be contained.” Avad began to hum, his head tilted back with a beautiful smile spreading across his face, his golden wings fluttering back and forth to a distinctive rhythm.
“The Father is still standing,” Gabriel said to his brothers. “The light of His presence is increasing. Heaven will not be able to contain it.”
“The earth will not be able to hold the power of heaven,” Michael replied to Gabriel’s declaration.
Anticipation was now streaming off the warriors as they hovered by Gabriel’s side. Even Michael was restless, knowing that something wonderful was about to happen; realizing that the intense Glory of the Lord could never be contained!
“Now,” Basar roared as he punched his fist above his head. “The gates are opening! The host is revealed! The Father makes known the Son!”

The children had only just reached the circle of fire to speak to their brother Benjamin when the earth began to shake.
“Earthquake,” one of the older shepherds yelled as he jumped to his feet.
“No,” Benjamin said as he pulled his brother and sister to his side. “The earth is not tearing. See the rocks. They are shaking, but not falling from their place.” Looking around him, Benjamin realized that they seemed to be the only ones who had noticed the ground moving. Everyone else below them—asleep within the walls of Bethlehem—was unaware.
The shepherds were standing close to the fire near the cliff that overlooked the valley. Their sheep were bedded down for the night. Leaving his brother and sister by the fire, Benjamin stepped to the edge of the cliff and looked down. The sheep were not restless. They did not notice that the earth around and above them was shaking.
“The sheep are unafraid,” Benjamin said as his brother and sister ran to peer down into the valley. Slowly, the other shepherds walked forward to join Benjamin. It was then that they heard it.
The sound of the rocks shaking began to gradually change. No longer was there a dull vibration of stone against stone; it was as if a soft melody was surging upward from the very heart of the earth. The sound reverberated skyward, building in momentum, reaching out to another melody that was coming from high above and answering the call from below. Awestruck, the shepherds stood in silence.
Louder and louder, the unusual melody built in strength, until finally the shepherds could no longer stand. Dropping to their knees, they all stared skyward, sensing that something remarkable was about to occur.
“Benjamin. I’m afraid.”
Reaching out to draw his little brother and sister into his arms, Benjamin leaned down and whispered into their ears. “Listen. Do you not hear it? It is as if an entire host of voices are singing in perfect harmony. Listen,” he said once again.
“I hear it! I hear it,” his little brother said, reaching his hand out into the night. The young boy was trying to capture the sweet sound of the notes in the palm of his hand.
Just as Benjamin looked down to smile into his brother’s face, a scream ripped through the night.
“Look,” his sister cried in terror. “Benjamin … look!”
High above, in a night filled with nothing but stars, an angel of the Lord stood before them. The light of a million candles glowed off his skin, and his full wings sparked with fire. His features were difficult to discern, though his piercing blue eyes flashed clearly within a face framed by long golden hair. When he spoke, all of the shepherds dropped prostrate to the ground. Their fear was instantaneous.
“Do not be afraid,” Gabriel said to the shepherds who shook at his appearance. Slowly, one by one, the shepherds raised their heads to stare upward into the face of the angel.
“I bring you good news of great joy, which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Benjamin felt his little brother move from beneath his arm. Before he could grab his hand, the young boy stood to his feet, smiling up into the face of the angel. Gabriel smiled down at the boy as he spoke.
“And this will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

Then the heavenlies erupted! As the shepherds watched, their faces bathed in the brilliant lights of heaven, Gabriel shot skyward and joined his brothers. Together, as the heavenly host descended, the warriors of the Lord lifted their voices. Loudly, jubilantly, singing with uncontained joy, the angels rejoiced!
Basar’s deep bass and Avad’s soulful tenor harmonized with notes so beautiful they could never be duplicated. Brother beside brother, the angels sang until their vast multitude filled the first heaven. Finally, the shepherds were able to discern the words of their ancient melody.
“Glory, glory, glory. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will to men with whom He is pleased.”

In an endless chorus, the angels of the Lord sang, until finally, the light of heaven faded and they were no more.
With the weight of the power of God resting heavily upon their shoulders, the shepherds remained facedown upon the earth. Soon, they would rise; but not now. Now, they would remain where they were and worship their God—their God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who had promised them that one day their Messiah would be born. The God who was incapable of lying and who would always keep His Word. He was their God—the Great ‘I Am’—and He was pleased with them!
Tears of joy ran down the shepherds’ faces as they sang their praises to the Lord. And when they could finally rise upon legs that were shaky and weak, they ran from the hills toward the lights of Bethlehem, where God had told them they would find their Savior.

Merry Christmas! Our Savior be praised, for He and the Father and the Spirit of the Living God are One! Glory and honor to His name-
Jesus. precious, precious Jesus.

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