Page 3, 3rd December 1954

3rd December 1954
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Page 3, 3rd December 1954 — ALONG THE AD To it ETHLEHEM
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Locations: Gaza, Bethlehem, Jericho

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ALONG THE AD To it ETHLEHEM

By BARBARA MONTAGU—SCOTT

. And I am telling you, wife, always I am mindful of what is coming of her, when we are gone. She is not like other young maids . . ."

"Nor, indeed, ever has been." The sweet face of the woman, his wife, was lined with her own anxiety.

. . And he is a good man, Joseph the carpenter, and respected by all. Not young, of course.

"But never does she look upon the young men."

"It is hard to know what is for best in it. You have spoken with the maid herself, wife, on the matter? What says she of it?"

"As always, that if God wills it, so it will be."

"Aye. it is only that I am mindful for her safety and happiness when we are no longer here, and we are neither of us young any more."

"Her happiness has always been a strange thing." said the mother, thoughtfully. It does not move • upon ordinary things, but comes as if from a spring in her own heart." ". . and I would know her safe, with Joseph. That is what is laying hold on me all the time— this fear for her safety. . . ."

"It is strange, but, for my part, always I am feeling that God Himself has hold upon that."

ivT was a very quiet little betrothal feast in the illage of Nazareth in the Lebanon hills, and only a few near relatives and friends were called in to drink "mazeltov" to it in a cup of Anne's honey wine. But those there were marvelled yet again at the beauty of the young girl, Mary, who walked in such grace and so gently did her parents' bidding. The girl Mary, to whom from childhood all the other children had clung, to whom the animals always fled for succour and protection. Mary, . young, lovely, and so strangely wise.

And so it was that, simply, among simple things, the marriage day was set.

A little flaunting is not unknown among maidens of any race when such is done, but Mary's head was bent carefully as ever over the weaving, or the household tasks, her steadfast eyes and small, deft hands moving as steadily upon the few things she would bring to Joseph's house as upon all else.

The well from which all water must be brought was at the far end of the village, a lovely place in the glow of the setting sun, which time was always that most favoured by the maidens for the task, not altogether, perhaps, without eye to the fact that it was the hour when the young men would also have ceased their work in the fields and vineyards, and be gathered there.

But Mary had always loved it better at the break of day, when the early-morning light outlined the dark hills across which came the tang of the lake water beyond, fresh upon the breeze.

And this morning it seemed to her lovelier than ever before, clearer cut the horizon, steadier and brighter the light, as she lowered the vessels to the cool spring water.

THE sudden sound of the voice in the spellbound silence around startled her and she turned, shyly pulling the hood of her robe over

her face..

"Hail! Thou art highly favoured . . . the Lord is with thee... ."

It was a voice unknown to her, strong and vibrant as a chord upon

the cithern, and the young girl was filled with fear. She picked up the water pots and turned to go, but a shadow, like the shadow of great wings lay upon her way, and she could not move.

"Fear not, Mary . . ." the low voice rang out again, "for thou Hest found grace with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive and bring forth a son, and shall call his name Jesus. He shall he called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God shall give to him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever and of his kingdom there shall be no end."

Slowly the young girl's eyes lifted from the golden-tipped wings that swept the earth to the shining face, and her own sweet voice gasped her amazement.

But . . how .

Into the frozen stillness of the sleeping world came the answer : "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee . . and the Holy Child which shall he born of thee shall be called the Son of God. . . ."

And in the heart of Mary lay,

with his words, the knowledge of given choice, burdened by all its fear. Slowly, gently, she made it.

"Behold . . . the handmaid of the Lord. . . . Be it done unto me

• . . according to thy word... ."

And as her eyes lifted again to the angel's face it passed into the shadows beyond the brightening rays of the coming day.

OU are not believing it? The times you are telling me from the writings about the Messiah who is coming, and yet now you cannot believe in your own faith in

"But . . . from us! From such as us! A son from my daughter ... poor and humble folk!"

"God has never loved the proud." "But . . . how could it be? How could such a thing be?

"in the way she is telling of it. Are you ever hearing her lie to us?"

"And besides, it has always been said that he would he born in Bethlehem, that one, and this is Nazareth. And how are we explaining it . . to others?"

"We are just telling them the truth, that is all."

"But . . ." • "And God Himself is giving them to believe it,"

"And . . Joseph? Will he believe it? He does not know her as we do?"

For a moment, even the mother's clear gaze faltered. Then she said, gently: "God is helping him to do so."

OSEPH the carpenter made his way up the village street, as usual at sunset on shabets, to the house of the parents of Mary, his betrothed wife, giving greeting to those who stood or sat about the doorways. for it was a fine evening and pleasant out of doors.

Made more pleasant to Joseph by the prospect of talking with the parents while his eyes would be privileged to look upon the lovely face of Mary as she set the candles for lighting above the bread and cheese and fruit upon which her father would say kiddush.

And tonight he would be able to tell that he had finished the table and begun upon the stools and howls.

He walked well for all the years he had bent over a bench, for the blood of the line of Judah was in his veins, showing itself in the long, easy stride and the good carriage of his head.

"Shalom . . shalom!"

He gave and returned the greeting from his heart, joying that truly he walked in peace and good fortune, for not to many men was it given to win so gracious and lovely a young bride.

He did not even notice the slightening of the heartiness in the father's greeting, nor the unusual hesitation of the good woman her mother, for the sight of Mary herself always lit for him, like a beacon, everything among which she moved.

He did not even notice that the father lifted his hand above the food and dropped it again, to say:

"Anne, wife . . ."

Nor even, at first, that the mother had begun upon it.

Joseph sat stunned as his world fell to pieces about him, his bewildered dismay written all too plainly upon his downcast face. Until, at last, they pressed him.

"It is a hard thing . . you ask of me," he ventured, his eyes no longer lifted to the serene and lovely face of the girl sitting with her hands folded before him.

"It is a hard thing." they answered him.

f.ike a man uncertain whether or not he may fall, his arm outflung, his rugged face twisted with pain, he rose and turned towards the door of the little dwelling. "A thing that has . . . never before . . . been known. • . That is. surely, of the impossible. . . ."

"Except to Almighty God Himself," they told him; "to Whom all things are possible."

"And I do not think that I can bear it. . . ."

The little silence lay heavily upon it.

Like a man bent beneath some physical blow he moved. and at the door he spoke again, although he did not turn his head towards them.

"But . . what I can do, I will do . . . so that none shall come to hear or know of it. . . ."

And slowly, stricken, he passed out into the darkness. H E sat for a long time in the little workshop, his hands upon the smoothness of pine, the strength of oak, the sharp edges of the tools—the things that he could understand —for he could not bear the sight of the little home he had been preparing, nor, with the lethargy of unhappiness upon him, could he eat or drink,

Mary . . he had not thought that she would ever love him. How could she? So much older than she . . so less than worthy of all her loveliness and goodness.

And now they told him this . . of her. Of her! He still could not believe it . . . not of Mary.

If only she had denied it • • but she had not. If only she had admitted that they lied to him. . .

But she had not denied it. In her shy, silent way she had approved it, her lovely glance fearless and single as ever.

He fell asleep at last, his head upon the bench, still puzzling upon it, nor coming to any answer that pleased him.

How long he slept he never knew, only that he woke with the fierceness of the dream still upon him, and the vision still within his gaze.

An angel . . it had without doubt been an angel . . . who spoke to hint.

"Joseph. son of David. fear not . . that which is conceived of her is of the Holy Ghost. . . ."

He could still hear clearly the echo of it.

He might have known. Dear God, he might have known!

Swiftly, late as it was, he strode back up the hill.

THE parents gently laid the small, soft hand of Mary in Joseph's workworn palm.

"Go with God, my daughter, as God will go with you."

Beside his heavier footsteps her young feet trod lightly the dry dust down which the gutter water streamed, her eyes upon the stars. In the little yards as they passed, the tethered asses brayed beneath the slender crescent of the rising moon.

Beside the little dwelling to which he brought her, Joseph had planted and tended a hush of rosemary and one of lavender, and their sweet smell filled the night as he plucked for her the sprigs. Ile led her into the tidy workshop, his eyes upon her face, set as for so long he had dreamed to see it, against that background. and saw her hand move towards one of the

pieces of carving he worked upon

in his spare time, her face lit with pleasure.

"It is the head of David the King," he told her, and saw, with the artist's delight, that already she had known it.

In the adjoining little cavelike room that was to be her home, he pointed her with his gentle deference towards the cooking oven he had built in the stone wall, the carved table with the two bowls upon it, the little brass rushlight lamp that he had polished and hung from the ceiling.

"Bought from one who said that it had belonged to a Pharaoh." he said, his gentle smile spreading deprecatingly. "But I would not he sure of that."

"It is all so beautiful." Her voice always had that sweetness. But what is more beautiful is that know . . that God has sent me here."

Shyly, she offered him the bundle that she carried, and from it he took forth the straw mats she had plaited, the blankets she had woven, admiring the pattern of the dyed wool, the piece of linen woven without seams. for Mary was clever at the weaving, and the sixpence that her father had given for a marriage portion.

His big hands laid the blankets within the sleeping niche and the mat beneath her feet.

"There is milk I brought from the goats this morning. . . ." He showed her the hole in the wall where it stood, cool and fresh. "And there is bread . . . not such good bread as you will make, but . . . if one is hungry. . .

He stood before her, his tali frame bent, anxious, eager, as the words welled up within him.

"I hope . I have always hoped . . • that you would he happy here, Mary. . ."

Upon her lovely upturned face he read the purity of her lovelier soul.

Into his hands he took gently those smaller ones and, bending his head lifted them to his lips.

Then, swiftly, silently, he went out to the workshop where he had made for himself a place to sleep among the shavings.

IT was a quiet life in the Nazarene home, its simplicity uncluttered. To the steady sound of Joseph at work upon the bench, or that of

the little millstone as Mary ground the meal, was added only that of the birds in the trees outside, the flap of the fresh-washed linen upon the bushes, the murmuring of the goats for milking and the mew

ing of the little cat complaining for his share of it, or the voice of one come to give an order or seek Joseph's advice in some matter or to gather tranquillity of Mary in some domestic pother.

The breaking of its peace began as a small thing, like a summer breeze ruffling the stillness of a summer day.

Caesar had issued another decree. Cesar and his palace were a long way off.

All the world was to be enrolled in a census. Everybody must obey,

entering himself and his family upon it in his own city.

Joseph, it seemed, with many others. must go all the way to the city of David for the purpose. Here was ruffling indeed,

The idea of so long and tiring a journey for Mary began to trouble him. If only he could afford to borrow an ass . . . he must afford it.

FOR long, one Matthias, a merchant from Jericho, who bought

much of Joseph's work for sale there, had admired the carved head of David and besought Joseph to finish it.

Joseph resolved to do so and to sell it to him upon his next visit, which fortunately was imminent.

"So," said Matthias, helpfully, when they had done with the business of tables and stools and bowls, "you have finished the head, I see." His hands passed appreciatively over the exquisite piece of carving.

"It is for sale," said Joseph.

With recovered nonchalance the merchant set the head back on the shelf preparatory to a little hard bargaining. He had long coveted it, for he knew where, easily and at profit, he might dispose of it.

"I do not think, after all," he said, "that it is a very good likeness. I have seen others better. The beard, perhaps, is wrong. . . ."

"It is a good likeness," said Joseph.

"And the ears! What are you doing to the ears? They are not alike. Yes, 1 think you are spoiling it by the ears. But still, perhaps you are selling it some time to somebody who does not notice such things very much, and will chance it."

Joseph knew Matthias well, but he was anxious and betrayed it.

"I have to sell it. I have need of the money."

"So?"

"And if you do not buy it I must go down to the market and try another."

"So? You are wanting money as bad as all that?" "I have to go to Bethlehem for the census" "Me, too, all the way to Gaza. I cannot think why my parents did not take a little trouble and get me born in Jericho, seeing they must have known that they were to live there. That way, I am saving. . . ."

"You will buy the head?"

"How can I say what I am buying or not when 1 do not even know the price?"

"Only a silver shekel."

"Shadrack ! A silver shekel ! For a piece of wood!"

"It is a good head."

"A silver shekel! Let us forget all

about it. then. my good Joseph." "But . . I must have the money . . to borrow an ass . . . for the

journey . . . for my wife."

"So?"

The small, round eyes narrowed to very slits, and Joseph the carpenter was no longer upon a seller's market. Within his sleeves the moist hands of the merchant moved gently upon each other.

"I do not think you are ever getting enough by the head for that. but no matter, For my part, I would not dare to give more than sixpence for it, for fear that it would be said that I had run mad."

"But to borrow an ass will cost much more than that."

"That, my dear, is your affair. Can anybody help it if ytiu are set suddenly upon luxurious living? Let us say no more about it. Next time I come, perhaps, you may have

changed your mind." '

"But it is the day aftee'lomorrow that we go to Bethlehem:" "Me, too, to Gaza.. Hard times, are they not, friend,'upon honest men?" He prepared ^ ostentatious departure.

"Good-day to you, then, Joseph. At the moon after next, perhaps, although money will be short, I fear, after all the expenses that we are being put to. . . ."

"For tenpence, then.... " Joseph seized the head and hurried after him.

"No, my good fellow, let us forget it, I beg of you. We have always been good friends. . • ."

"For eight, then. It is a very good bargain for eight."

"But, see, I have closed the

Along the Road to Bethlehem

Continued from page 3

panniers now, and the other racks are all full. Next time, perhaps..." Joseph was desperate.

"For six, then . . for the six pence."

"Well, I do not know. . . ." The hesitation might almost have been genuine. "And perhaps I am never even seeing my money hack on it. . . ."

But the sack was opened again and the head thrust inside, and Matthais was counting out the six pennies with the same care that he hid his satisfaction.

"SO fr om Ophrah Ephraim will be the the ass for you," said Joseph. "I an afraid you will be very weary by then. It is a great pity that Matthias would not give me more for the head, and that I am having to pay Timothy for the meal and the dates at once, for he, too. is needing the money for the journey. . .

"It is well, Joseph," she told him gently.

They started the long journey well before dawn, as did everybody else. At that hour the air was fresh and the dew still upon the roads and lanes.

At Nain the long, straggling line was joined by more travellers, but Joseph took the lower road by the burying place, for although it was a little longer that way it was less steep, which was how they came to be left a little behind their friends and neighbours and among strangers.

lt was only eight miles from there to Scythopolis, but now the sun was up and its heat already beginning to blanket the parched earth. "But at Ophrah Ephraim," said Joseph, his troubled eyes upon her sweet, pale face, and the fear rising within him with every mile that she might not be able to get so far. "At Ophrah Ephraim I will get the ass."

Part of the road lay within the Ghor valley, along the dried bed of the river. and the sun poured down upon the walls of caked mud on either side and the sweating asses that thrust among them, nosing hopefully among the dried ruts where once the water had been.

They rested a little at Scythooohs. It was only four miles west of Jordan, but the hot, dry air carried no breeze from the river.

From Scytholopis to Aenon the way wound up over the rocky slopes that led down again to each barren ravine. There was no shade anywhere now on the endless brown slopes and narrow stone-strewn paths, full of the swarms of flies at the dung, on which the heat beat down,

"At Ophrah Ephraim," said Joseph, his own face pale with the strain.

But at Salim, by Aenon, in the place of the springs, they rested beside the water, and undid the little parcel of bread in the clean, white cloth and drank from the water Joseph carried in the old goatskin bottle, which he poured for her into the little mug that he had made, but she could not eat of the dried dates.

Neither could they stay there very long. for from Aenon to Sychar was nearly 11 miles, and the way would be hard and rough again. It was well, too, not to fall too far behind their fellow-travellers, for in Samaria not only the burnt brown grass beneath the feet of Jews could light easily to flame.

The sun was high now and among the wilted roots of fennel and stumps of withered trees, and the lonely little heaps of charred and blackened stones Joseph's tale of the loveliness of Sychar must have sounded almost unbelievable. But

like all travellers they were overnow? whelmed, when they got there, by the beauty of the city on the hill.

Once again Joseph elected to go by the lower road, which brought them out to the great well that Jacob dug out of the solid rock, and the sight of the streams flowing down the slopes and spreading fertility in the valley burst upon them. The whole of the valley was full of gardens and orchards, and they sat beneath a great mulberry where once Abraham had pitched tent.

And then, from there to Ophrah Ephraim was 13 miles, through the wilderness.

He left her at the foot of the hill while he went up to the village of old-time Gideon's exploits. for the ass, but, alas, no beast of any kind was to be come by, for the place was deserted and the gates locked, for the census was taking toil of all.

Joseph's heart was heavy for her weariness, but there was nothing for it now but to go on, and only her pale uncomplaining smile lit the way.

They went round by Emmaus. being again less steep, and so it was late when. at last, they came to Bethlehem

HEY looked down from the hillside upon its quietude and peace. Here and there a few lights still gleamed, but mostly all was dark and quiet

". . And then at the inn of Jonas-Bar-Jonas you will be able to rest," he had told her, all the long day. He pointed it out to her now from the hillside. But it was a little alarming to find it in darkness, and more so to find it closed and barred.

"I am going round to the back," said Joseph, "if you will wait here. . the back door also was barred,and only much knocking upon it roused at length the landlord, and his ire.

He had himself had a long, full day, and for long since it should have ended he had been turning travellers away from his door.

It had been like a nightmare, for in living memory such a thing had never happened . . . travellers demanding food and shelter all day long, and willing to pay for it . . . sleeping now where they sat at hie tables . . . lying huddled together in the passages . . . lying packed upon his roof . . sleeping in his own bed. . . and for long past now there had been no room left for another of them.

"Go away," he cried from the place in the cellar that his wife had held for him, but which, unfortunately, he had been called upon to share with one whose snoring was destroying hope of his sleep. "There is no room left!"

"But. Jonas, it is I. Joseph. You remember me . . . Joseph?"

''There is no more room in here, I tell you, whoever you are !"

"But it is I. Joseph, and , ."

"I do not care if it is the Prophet himself . . . there is no room left! Go away and leave us in peace!"

"But . . where shall I so, Jonas? We have travelled all day and I do not know . .

"So has the rest of the world and, it would seem, to Bethlehem! You must go somewhere else. I cannot help it. there is no room here."

"I can pay you, of course, Jonas . . ."

"You cannot pay me for what I cannot offer. Now, go away, there's a good fellow, and let me try to get a little sleep. I have been upon my legs all day!"

"But, Jonas, please listen to me . . ."

"Now what is it?" cried a shrill voice from above, "whatever is it

"Only another of them who will not take no for an answer," cried the landlord. "Come down, wife, and send him away before he begins again upon the breaking down of the &or. He will not take it from me," The sound of clattering footsteps could be heard on the stair; the heavy bolt was drawn.

"Do you not hear? There is no more room in the place! Now, be off with you . . ."

The shrill voice stopped suddenly as the jerked lantern revealed that other, lovelier, face, whose weariness was so strangely lit.

"But it is true. I tell you . , there is no room!"

The raucous tones choked upon the lack of forthcoming argument or recrimination, and an even newer gentleness raked again, irritably, the already overfilled

"We're packed out, I tell you. 'Course, I don't know, but . there's the stable . . . with a bit of clean straw, p'raps . . ."

"Thank you."

But the innkeeper's wife herself began to have doubts of the idea: "Still, I don't know, what with the animals and that. It's no kind of a place, of course. P'raps if you tried to knock up somebody else— Sol Levy, the scribe or the rabbi, p'raps . . ."

"My wife is very tired," said Joseph. "If we might sleep in the stable."

"Well, . . ." Under another jerked flash of the lantern towards them more change had come over the woman's manner. Unconsciously a hand had gone to the smoothing of the towsled head, a more modest gathering together of the carelessly-slung-on robe."

"No harm in looking. . . ."

She jerked the lantern uneertainly ahead and they followed her across the yard

"I'm sorry, I'm sure . . . but I can't help it, can I?"

In the light of the lantern the great docile eyes of the cattle blinked at them and the tethered asses turned sleepily to stare.

"Get along over with you, 'Recce! over with you, Meadowsweet !"

She spread the fresh-smelling hay she had dragged down from the loft into the little cleared space.

"If that , . . would be . . all right?" There was still that unwonted hesitation in her voice and manner.

"Thank you," they told her, "very much," and withdrawing, strangely troubled, the woman shivered as she clumped back to the house in the blast of icy wind that swept down upon her from the hills.

ASTRANGE wind and sudden. Up on the hillside the shepherds bent their heads against it as they huddled together under the dark night sky before the entrance to the fold. One of the dogs howled in its sleep.

"Sign of a storm before the night is done," said one, turning his mantle of sheepskin inside out against the cold.

"Quiet enough down there now."

Munching their bread and carob husks they looked down on the sleeping town.

"Did ever you see so many folk all trying to get into one place?"

"What is it," pondered another, "makes them so anxious to sleep under a roof? Now, for me . ."

"Did ','nu hear something just now?" Another, coming from among the penned sheep, looked scared. "What kind of a something? Is it somebody after the sheep again? We had better keep our eyes open."

"So long as you keep your mouths shut." yawned another, "and let other folk take a little sleep. A puff or two of wind and You are all meshugged as a lot of women!"

"There was something else there, I tell you, beside the wind," pro

tested the other. felt it move beside me . . ."

"Look! Oh, God of Abraham, look !" •

The surprised eyes of the others turned from where their fellow fled down the hill to the figure standing among them—the strange figure of a young man like no other young man that they had ever seen—of serene countenance and great beauty, about whom there glowed a light which grew slowly brighter as he stood there outlined against the darkness of the midnight sky.

And fear, like no other fear that they had ever known, took them, so that they trembled and fell to their knees.

And the young man reached out his hand to calm them, and his voice was like no other voice that ever they had known.

"Fear not," he said, " I bring you good tidings. For this day is born to you a Saviour. And this is the sign : you shall find him wrapped in his swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. . .

And suddenly upon their stiffened ears his voice was lifted upon a rising chorus and behind him on the dark hillside was a great crowd of others of his kind, whose voices rose upon the quiet night like a mighty choir.

And the song they sang spread and lifted from the earth beneath the trembling shepherds to the gol-e den glory of the sky, and who heard it would have known it for a song brought from eleewhere to the world.

Then, as it had come, the light faded and all was gone. But still the little group of shepherds eteyed, their eyes upon the place where it had been, their staffs still clutched in their numbed hands and their breath coming slowly back into their bodies.

And from it they looked first at one another and then at the sleeping town below.

"A child . . still in its swadd

ling clothes . ."

"And lying in a manger . . ." "Let us go."

Alreads they were moving together down the hill as if they had forgotten all else.

REATHLESSLY they up reached the road, scrambling one after the other in this new unspoken alliance, banded together in the effort that possessed them.

The town was still dark and quiet and the door of the inn close barred. But from the stable beyond it came a light and together they moved towards it.

Together they clung, speechless, before the open doorway, their eyes upon the child lying among the hay in one of the mangers, its lovely face shining in the lantern's light, its young eyes strangely wise.

Beside the manger, the beautiful girl who knelt there, bound the infern's feet gently in a little woollen shawl.

And in the open doorway the shepherds fell upon their knees, their wondering eyes wet, and the words of the angel upon the hillside coming stutteringly and unaccustomed from their rougher tongues : "Glory to God . . . in the highest . • and on earth peace ... to men of goodwill."




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