Road to Bethlehem: A Christmas Mini-Series

Bethlehem

by Leslie Crouse

Mary’s time in Ein Karem had come to a close. Father would be here soon to escort her back to Nazareth. This little Judean town had been a sanctuary for her. Elizabeth had been the only friend who rejoiced at the miracle she carried. And Elizabeth had given birth to a beautiful son! Zechariah and Elizabeth named him John, causing quite the scandal at the synagogue. But it had earned Zechariah his voice back.

Gabriel. Mary still had a hard time equating the kind, joyful angel she had met in the stable as being the same angel responsible for Zechariah’s missing voice. She did, however, know that years without children had made Zechariah cynical toward God. She wondered if there was more to the story than Zechariah was telling. Mary remembered her father’s voice saying, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”

As Mary washed John’s baby clothes her thoughts turned toward her father. He had visited her a month into her visit, delivering Joseph’s letter. Her father, Hezekiah, had asked forgiveness for his actions, anger and accusations. Yet, tears still filled her eyes at the memory of him slapping her. She had always been Hezekiah’s little girl. They’d had a special relationship and his rejection had hurt more than any physical pain in that moment. She had forgiven him, but trust came harder.    

Joseph had believed in her more than her father had. The incident had both given her an unshakable confidence in the LORD’s faithfulness while fracturing her childlike confidence in people. Humanity was broken. Even those who were godly made serious mistakes only the LORD could heal and make right. Would her son – God’s Son – heal this broken world? Would Jesus be the key to finding peace amidst the storm?

Best gird your loins, she thought to herself. You have yet to face those in Nazareth. Mary lifted her chin. God had made a way for her. It would not be easy, but it would be safe. Joseph had written they would marry upon her arrival. But, he would not consummate the marriage until after the birth. Her cheeks burned with the thought. He had gone on to explain that to the world, they would appear married. By law they would still only be betrothed. She knew his intent was to protect her and Jesus.

Suddenly, she was very grateful for her betrothal to Joseph.

~Sixth Months Later~

Joseph could not believe the injustice of Caesar. The man’s greed had no end. Apparently, Caesar needed money to pay for the expansion of his kingdom and maintain the Roman roads he was so proud of. So, in true form, Caesar cunningly mandated a census. All people were forced to travel and register in their hometown. Then, Caesar charged them a toll to travel the roads. It is extortion! He thought angrily to himself.

Joseph packed three day’s worth of supplies planning to leave in the morning. Mary could give birth any day now. It was a two day journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth, but he must be prepared for every possibility. He prayed the trip would not be too taxing for her.

His father, had encouraged him to take Balaam. He would have to fight that cursed creature the whole way. Balaam only responded to a whip and Mary would never allow it. Jospeh smiled. It seems I am to struggle with a stubborn beast and stubborn woman the whole way. It was worth it. He would not ask her to walk so far at this stage. They would take the cart he hauled his furniture in. Mary had a touch with animals. Perhaps she could tame Balaam’s cantankerous spirit.

At sunrise, Joseph held Mary’s hand and helped her up. They set out and turned onto the main road. Outside the city, Joseph paid their first toll. When would there be justice in the world? Joseph was a black and white kind of man. He did not live in grey. Romans lived in the grey area. It allowed them to justify every false action.

Joseph hungered for a new kingdom. A King that defended the weak and governed with righteousness and justice. Would his adopted son, Jesus, share his passion for injustice too? What would he do when he found the temple charging worshippers triple for sacrifices? Lost in his thoughts of the Messianic kingdom, he did not realize his worst nightmare had begun.

Over halfway to Bethlehem, Mary’s pains began. He had thought pains gradually increased, but Mary’s were hard and fast with longer breaks in between. But what do I know?! What can I do? Mary decided she wanted to walk for a bit. They rested when the intensity started building and walked once the pains relaxed. This was the progression of their trip. Joseph was desperate as he watched his wife and thought, There are lions in Judea. We cannot risk her giving birth out here in the open.

Joseph prayed.  LORD! My God! This is beyond me. I am useless to her. Be our strength, be our shield! Joseph looked over and saw Mary was ready to start walking again. “Mary, you are doing so well. We are almost there,” he encouraged. Mary seemed to be handling the affair with a cool head. Maybe that midwife she had assisted was more than a gossip after all, Joseph thought wryly.

Joseph looked up to see lights in the distance. “Mary! We have made it! We will find help soon.” Mary gave him a nod, and he caught the words of her favorite psalm.

During her time back in Nazareth, Mary had clung to the scriptures and found much comfort in the Psalms. As a married couple, they had read them together every morning. It had been awkward as they found their footing together being pseudo-married and pregnant, but their shared love for the Word of the Lord bound them together in spirit.

Once in the town of Bethlehem Joseph knocked on every door. Every. Single. Door. Did no one have compassion? Finally, when he knocked on the last door a huge man stepped out into the evening.

“Shalom! Sir, I beg of you, I must find a place to stay tonight. My wife’s pains have begun. I fear we do not have long. I have asked everywhere. Please say there is a place for us.” Joseph said.

“Shalom my friend. I see you are in need of… much.” The large man took in Mary’s dilemma. Joseph watched several emotions cross his face. But unlike the others, he did not turn them away. At least, not completely. He introduced himself as Hananiah and led them toward his stable.

Look for the next story in my Christmas Mini-Series, The Birth of Christ.

The Shepherd: A Christmas Mini-Series

The Shepherd

by Leslie Crouse

…continued from The Innkeeper’s Wife.

Shammah slid loaves of bread, raisin cakes and dried figs into his pack. Strapping on his canteen and bed roll he was almost ready. He just needed his staff, his rod and his sword. He did not usually carry a sword, but he had a niggling feeling he would need it. Judea was treacherous.

This week they would move the flocks into the Judean mountains near Bethlehem. David’s home town. He had been a shepherd too. Shammah smiled to himself. Perhaps I could learn to master the sling like David. Then father may take notice.

Eli, his father, stared at the fire refusing to look up. Shammah informed him he was leaving and was granted no more than a grunt in response. Shammah was a blight on the family. Death and ruination had visited them the day he was born and Eli had never forgotten.

Father lost everything when the caravan had been raided. After limping home with only his life spared, Eli discovered Shammah’s mother had died in childbirth as well. Two blows in the span of one day. Grief was indelibly printed onto the fabric of their family.

Eli held Shammah personally responsible. Ruin he had named him. From the moment he entered the world Shammah had become the family scapegoat bearing the grief, sorrow and sin of others. Thus, father had rejected him and assigned him to shepherding duties. Out of sight. Out of mind. Out of trouble.

Shammah did not mind. He was no one’s prize. Shepherding was a dirty business, but he liked to use the oil found on the wool for his beard. He smelled like an animal, but the sheep liked him. Followed him. Knew his voice. Trusted him without question. And he liked the solitude. Better the Judean mountains with their wild animals than my cold father. Resolute in his decision, Shammah refused to look back at the campfire. It was time to move out.

Five days later, Shammah and the other shepherds found what they had been searching for. Green pastures. Quiet waters gliding through the ravines sourced from the higher mountain regions. It had been a grueling journey and everyone was ready to find rest in the meadows. It was no wonder David wrote psalms of worship here. Truly, these remote places restored the soul and brought one closer to Jehovah.

Eli had not been a man of faith. But Rachel, their aged servant who raised him, had taught him the words of Jehovah. As a boy, Shammah had hungered for the steadfast love of a father described in the sacred scriptures. As a man, he was not convinced of the reality. But, out here he felt closer to the Presence of Jehovah. Less distraction.

As evening drew near one of the shepherd boys began to play his flute. Music quieted the sheep and the soul while also keeping predators at bay. It was Shammah’s favorite time. In honor of the city of David, the boy was playing one of David’s psalms. Or, at least it sounded like one of David’s.

Shammah gazed at the unusually bright stars and began humming along trying to remember the words:

“Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars!”

He shut his eyes and hummed the verses he did not remember and picked up again at the end:

“He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for…

The reedy notes abruptly ceased and Shammah opened his eyes. A giant stood before him! He was so big and shone so bright they all cowered in unmanly fear. And then he spoke,

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” As suddenly as he appeared with the message he was gone.

Then, a cacophony of singing erupted like he had never heard before. All the heavens. Praise from the highest heights. All his angels. All the hosts. All the shining stars. Jehovah’s word is true! Shammah marveled. The horn of salvation! He is here? Tonight?

Bursting with excitement, Shammah shouted, “We must go see!” But no one answered him. The others lay on the ground, passed out with fear. He did not blame them, but would not wait. He started running down the path to Bethlehem when he forgot his sword. Why did he care?! He wouldn’t need it! Ah! It is like my feet are frozen to the ground! I must get it first.

Forty minutes later they began their descent into the far side of the city. That was when he heard it. A feral, blood-chilling snarl. Judean lions? So close to the city? Hand on his sword he peered into the darkness and once his eyes focused, he froze. Not. Lions. Shammah looked to the hills again. What once had been covered in angels’ songs of praise now had writhing, dark figures coming from all directions slinking toward the stable in the hillside.

Nearby two pairs of red, glowing eyes intent upon the stable door. In the light of the moon Shammah saw the glint of unnaturally long fangs. A musky, unclean smell permeated the suddenly very cold air. At the soft cry of a baby from inside, righteous anger welled up within Shammah. He planted his feet and drew his sword.

…to be continued as The Shepherd’s Sword on December 14, 2020.

All quotes taken from The ESV Bible by Crossway Publishers.

The Innkeeper: A Christmas Mini-Series

The Innkeeper

by Leslie Crouse

Hananiah sat amidst the noisy dinner guests watching them fight over the last of Evie’s famous challah bread. His wife was the best cook in Bethlehem and he was big enough to prove it. Evie’s heart was even bigger. He watched her serve their guests with that soft smile and sparkling eyes. After twenty years together, he loved her deeper than he could have imagined.

Over the din he heard, “Where are your children? I do not believe I have seen them running around here with my own.” He cringed and glanced at his wife Evie. Silence fell in the room as Hananiah watched a flood of sorrow overtake Evie’s eyes before she nodded at him and ducked into the kitchen.

He cleared the lump forming in his throat at the sight of his wife’s pain and answered, “The LORD will bless us in His time.” This was no new question. Small talk always led this direction and over the years Evie had learned to let him answer while she avoided the knowing looks.

That quick flash of pain in her eyes was the only indication of their deep sorrow. Does not God hear their cry? Does he not see what a wonderful mother she would make? Anger fought to fill his heart but he pushed it back down. God knew best. Over the years Evie had not hardened her heart and he would honor her by doing the same.

God had blessed them in so many ways and he was not ungrateful. Having been born here, they did not need to travel during this ridiculous census. Hananiah and Evie had been able to stay put and collect the income brought on by Caesar’s decree. Pompous man. If he were God fearing he would know strength is not found in numbers but in the name of El Shaddai. Ah! He must shake this dismal mood or his guests would suffer for it.

At the sound of a knock or, rather a bang on the door, Hananiah began the task of standing up. Difficult after another of Evie’s fine meals. He kissed her cheek as he walked by and whispered something in her ear that made her smile and swat his arm.

Outside stood a young man wringing his hands. “Shalom! Sir, I beg of you, I must find a place to stay tonight. My wife’s pains have begun and I fear we do not have long. I have asked everywhere. Please say there is a place for us.” Hananiah looked at the woman and took a double take. Wife? This was a mere girl! Something did not seem right here. Why can Evie and he not find joy in children while this undeserving couple did? LORD! It is not right! Well, whatever she was, clearly she was in labor.

Hananiah gritted his teeth. He wanted help, but the inn had been full for days and there was no way he would ask a family to leave. Refunds were impossible. They had already spent the rental income on linens, supplies and fresh grain for the animals. With town as busy as it was, food and supplies were scarce and greedy men had raised prices. Again.

The city square was no place for a woman to give birth. Where could they go? He must think.

“Shalom my friend. I see you are in need of… much.” He began leading them to the stable but the young woman paused to brace herself – one hand against the wall and another wrapped around her large belly – suppressing a low groan. She was embarrassed and obviously this was her first or she would have been better prepared.

Where was her mother? Maid? He set them up in the stable with fresh water for them as well as their animals and told them he would return shortly with blankets and food. It was the least he could do. Wasn’t it?

As he walked back toward the inn he heard another of her cries and the sound launched him back in time to when his baby sister was born. He was the second son of nine and had listened to births before.

He supposed he could let them have Evie and his room. It was in the back, separate from the others. But what a noisy business! Messy too. No. I will not do that to Evie. I will not make Evie watch a girl give birth in her own bed and then clean up after her too. Besides, if the other guests are disturbed our inn will always be remembered as such and destroy any future business. It is decided then. The barn it is. Evie would not approve but he would do what he must. His wife and his business needed to be priority.

Another cry pierced the night pulling him from his searing conscience and justifications.  The more he thought about it the more urgent the girl’s need became. This girl needs a midwife now! Where is that servant boy?

“Jacob, go get the midwife and bring her to the stable as fast as you can!” Hananiah yelled.

“But Sir! Grandmother Anna left for her hometown day before last. She isn’t – ” Jacob said.

“Then knock on every door and find one! We have no time!” Hananiah interrupted. At the rate she was going that baby may be here before the boy made it back. He watched Jacob, race down the dusty street. Truly, at this point any midwife would do. Any experienced mother.

Bitterness welled up again. Evie would not hesitate to help but she did not have the knowledge needed. He must tell her about the situation though. Maybe he could put it off until after the baby was born. She had her hands full with their guests. And if the guests caught wind that couple would never get any privacy.

“HANANIAH BEN JOHN! What do you think you are DOING? You told that poor girl to give birth in a barn? A BARN!” Fists planted on her hips, Eve skewered him with that fiery look of hers that withers every argument. She was on a war path now and was coming straight for him.

He had known she would not approve, but he had done the only thing he could. Right? That Jacob and his big mouth! What was done was done and right now they did not have time to argue.

“Eve, you must know given everything going on this was the best option. I will not argue with you about it. There is too much to do.” Eve whirled away in a fury. She began slamming open cupboards and ripping out all the brand new linens he had just purchased for their guests. He turned to get fresh water when he heard a ripping sound and his eyes grew round.

“Evie!” Hananiah’s face blanched as Eve ruthlessly tore their new linens to shreds. Never had he seen her so angry. It gave him pause. He turned his back and took a deep breath searching his heart one more time. Why had the barn seemed like such a good idea again? It is much too dirty for a woman giving birth. He knew that!

Before he could remember his arguments, His shame was punctuated by a loud smack as Eve stormed out the kitchen door arms full of the most expensive rags he had ever seen.

…Continue reading my new Christmas Mini-series with The Innkeeper’s Wife on December 11, 2020.