Tuesday, January 06, 2004

I wanted to write a verse for Epiphany to complete "A Shepherd's Story," but what started coming to me instead was this little Bible-based story that I've been working on for the past couple of nights.

A Shepherd's Story
Part III

A scribe is taking down these words as I, Joel, recount the events. I
am doing this at the insistence of my grandson, Zachary. I don't
know who will pay attention to the ramblings of an old man, for I
am now in my sixtieth year, my knees and knuckles swollen with
the pains of age and my eyes growing weak.

I am a witness to miracle, and this is the story I must tell you.
Some of it I have told you already, of the night I saw the new star
being formed in the heavens and the birth of the Messiah.

That star remained in the heavens over Bethlehem, a sign. I
pondered on it each night, and I asked Joseph and Mary its import,
but they could not answer.

I continued to visit that small family, to be in the presence of that
child. One night, a caravan appeared in Bethlehem...

With his small flock secured in the corral, Joel walked toward the
darkening streets of Bethlehem and his family home. He sang a
little song of joy, for he had been blessed with a child of his own, a
boy, now four months old. It had become Joel's ritual, upon
entering the house, to pick up his son and hold him high as both
laughed in delight.

Tonight, Joel was distracted by the loud complaints of a camel.
He changed his course and found a small crowd gathered around
as the camel, impatient for a turn at a watering bucket, spit at his
handler and yanked the reins, dragging the hapless handler a few
feet closer to another camel taking his turn at the water, who now
screamed and spit, also. The crowd roared in laughter at the twin
furrows left in the dirt by the handler’s feet.

“You cursed home to every flea and demon in the land,” screamed
the mucus-covered handler, hitting the camel with his whip. This
incited the crowd to more merriment.

Joel's mouth opened at the sight of the elegantly tooled saddles
atop the camels and the squares of heavy fabric in shades of
brilliant red, purple and green which covered the camels beneath
the saddles.

"Why, there is more wealth atop those camels than in the whole
town of Bethlehem," Joel said to himself. A number of mules were
laden with tents and provisions.

Several men dressed in heavily-brocaded robes belted with
gleaming gold and silver were talking to the elders.

"Who are they?" Joel asked his cousin Samuel.

"I don't know," replied Samuel. "Some say they are kings from
afar. Some say they are foreign rabbis of great knowledge."

Joel and Samuel edged a little closer to hear the conversation going
on between one of the elders, Ebenezer, and one of the foreigners.

Ebenezer laughed heartily. "King of the Jews? You are seeking the
King of the Jews?” His eyes fixed on Joel. “Here, Joel. Joel
knows all about Messiahs and kings and such. Joel, you take these
strangers to meet the King of the Jews. Take them to his palace."
Ebenezer laughed again. "And you visitors, it is customary to make
an offering to the temple of the town you visit. Plus something
extra for the watering of your animals and servants, and extra for a
guide to take you to the King of the Jews."

Ebenezer was a fool, and a greedy one, thought Joel. Ebenezer, like
most who had heard the stories of the shepherds, dismissed them as
the product of too much wine too late at night, though none could
come up with a satisfactory explanation for the star that remained
over Bethlehem.

After a few minutes negotiating the offering with the elder, the
strangers followed Joel through the narrow streets. Joel eyed the
men as they walked. All had bronze skin and black hair, but each
spoke with a differing foreign accent as they spoke softly with each
other. Two did not speak to Joel, although they gave half-bows
of acknowledgment.

The one who had been negotiating with Ebenezer had introduced
himself as Said of the farside of Persia. He asked Joel, "Why was
that man laughing about the King of the Jews? Who is this King
of the Jews to whom you are taking us?"

Joel looked at Said in surprise. "I thought you must know about
him if you are seeking him."

"Yes, yes. We know about him. But we don’t know who he is,"
replied Said, emphasizing the last word.

"Then how do you know about him? Why do you seek him?"
asked Joel.

"The study of the stars revealed the birth of a king, a holy king,
these months ago. This was confirmed to us in visions and dreams
that came to us as we studied in our monastery. The new star in the
sky is the sign of his advent. Its light shows the path to him. The
star is fixed above the sky over Bethlehem, the City of David, from
which the prophecies say the king will come. But we do not know
his name."

Joel slowed his footsteps. His voice was agitated.

"I saw that star being shaped in the long hours of the night
as I sat on a hill, watching my flock. It was a night of miracle.
The air was filled with the sound of strange songs. I don't know
how to explain. The air was crisp enough to cut, but laden with
something. It was the presence of holiness. Holiness so great
it terrified me. My kneesturned to water and I stayed on them,
praying for a long time."

Joel looked at the strangers with anxiety. The two men
accompanying Said were nodding their heads as if Joel’s words
made perfect sense to them. Joel licked his lips, then continued.

"Then a most beautiful creature appeared before me. It said my
name, then it said, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the name of the Lord. Joel,
go to your Messiah, the King of Kings, and worship Him now on
bended knee. Follow the light that will lead you.’

"One ray of light from that star surrounded me then danced before
me. It led me back into Bethlehem, lighting the path before me as if
it were daytime. The light stopped at a rough accommodation and I
went in. There, I found a man with a young woman who had given
birth just hours before. The light shined brightly on them, even
though they were inside, with a roof between them and the star. A
golden light surrounded the baby. The mother said his name was

"The air was thick with holiness. It was so strong about the baby
that I felt I could touch it. Its thickness surrounded me and made
me feel faint. I dropped to my knees before the baby and touched
my head to the earthen floor and realized tears were pouring from
my eyes. I stayed that way for I know not how long. It was as if I
were no longer in that room, but taken into some other place where
time was meaningless."

Joel had started speaking rapidly, but now he paused.

"I was brought back to that rough place by the clasp of Joseph’s
hand on my shoulder. ‘It is all right,’ Joseph told me. I started
jabbering to him about the angel appearing to me and sending a ray
of light from the star to guide me here. He nodded and said, ‘Yes.
An angel appeared to me, also, to foretell the birth of this child,
sent from God.’

"We both turned to look at the infant. His mother was holding him
in her arms. She was smiling, but a track of tears was on her face,
too. She bid me come closer. I did, and reached my hand toward
the baby then stopped, afraid to touch him. His hand caught my
finger, though, and gripped it. I began to shake at the power I felt
in that tiny hand. But then a sense of peace, of calm came over me.
I looked at Mary, the mother, and Joseph, and realized they had
that same calmness about them. Even the livestock on the lower
level of the quarters were very still and quiet.

"Said, what does all this mean? Will this child sit on the throne of
Israel like David in the old days? Do your stars and study give you
knowledge of this?"


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