Sean Patrick O'Mordha
The man used his broad, stocky frame to good advantage as he stomped up the dusty street plowing through congestion. People knocked aside turned to complain, but one look told them to think better of confronting the innkeeper.
“I should have known!” Azriel roared upon entering his home, “The Romans are levying yet another tax.”
“So, that's what the summons was all about?” his wife, Malka, said, removing bread from the oven.
“You were expecting them to declare a holiday maybe?” he said with dripping sarcasm while sitting at the table, his round face pink with anger and frustration.
“Here father, have a cool drink. I just fetched it.”
Azriel looked at his daughter as she handed him a clay bowl. He softened. It was impossible to look upon the eleven-year-old with long, curly locks and dancing brown eyes, and remain angry.
“Thank you, Hedva.”
“So what is this new tax?” Malka asked, now stirring a pot.
“The whole country is to be taxed. Oh, these Romans are clever. They know full well it's against our law to count us, except this way. They get it done and make money doing it.” Azriel’s anger began to build again. “Every male member must return to the city of his forefathers to pay the tax, so all the House of David will be coming here to Bethlehem.”
“Well, that won't be so bad. We don't have to leave, and think of all the people coming here. They are going to need a place to sleep and food to eat.” Malka tasted the broth bubbling over the fire and added more herbs.
Azriel began to visualize the sudden income his family was about to receive. “Praise the creator of all things!” He shouted, slamming an open palm on the rough, wood table.
“Before you start counting our sudden wealth, you had better start getting things ready.”
“You're right! Ehud! Gilead!” he called out to his eldest sons who were in the next room.
“Mend the corrals and lay in more hay and grain. Micha'el, you will help me prepare space for extra beds, many extra beds,” he continued to his youngest son. Azriel's cheeks glowed as he smiled. “We will be having guests soon. Lots of guests. Lots of guests with money.” Then lowering his voice so to speak to himself said, “And then when they leave we shall be rich.”
The next days became a whirlwind of activity as the descendants of King David began arriving according to the edict. There were many people and Bethlehem small so that it soon became crowded, very crowded. The Inn of Azriel swelled at the seems as he tried to accommodate as many as possible, not unlike a man who has eaten far more at a feast than he should until there was no room, even for Azriel's family. Fortunately, the April weather was pleasant as they slept on the roof.
If it weren't for the money, Azriel would have thrown the lot bodily into the streets. They were boisterous, demanding, and rude. He was hard pressed to meet their demands as Ehud and Gilead constantly fetched this or fetched that. Malka’s face was constantly covered with perspiration while fixing endless meals. Hedva who was born between Gilead and Micha'el, was equally busy helping her.
At the height of the confusion, while the family tried to serve the evening meal, a tall, slender man stepped into the main room. Azriel glanced toward him. Another traveller looking for a room. There just wasn't any more space. Besides, he was obviously not a man of means. His cloak was of coarse material coated with dust, as was his thick salt and pepper beard.
“I seek a place,” he said to the innkeeper, trying to be heard over the tumultuous noise from Azriel's guests.
“We are full,” Azriel shouted back.
“We have come from Galilee.”
“I said there is no more room here,” Azriel yelled, tired and irritated, waiving him off.
“Is . . . a place . . . we . . ..”
“What?” Azriel couldn't understand.
The traveler said something again, but it was impossible to know what it was. Frustrated, Azriel took the man's arm and escorted him back onto the street to get rid of him.
When the door closed behind them it became possible to hear and the traveller repeated his question. “We have travelled far. My wife is exhausted. Is there no place to find shelter?”
“Are you joking? Do you realize how many people have come here because of this ridiculous Roman order? My family sleeps on the roof to provide room for these, these . . ..” Azriel was tired, frustrated, and grumpy, and stumbled for a word to describe his insufferable guests that wouldn't offend God, but gave up with a heaving sigh. “All the residents of Bethlehem sleep on their roofs while others take over our homes. You won't . . .,” Azriel stopped mid-sentence as his eyes fell upon a young woman seated upon a small donkey. “Is that, that . . .?”
“My wife. She is with child.”
“How soon?” Azriel asked, lowering his voice.
“Very soon. The journey has been difficult on her.”
The innkeeper's tone became softer and more conciliatory. “Look. There really is no room in my house, and you'll not find a place to lay your head in this city except under the stars, and that's not safe. With so many honest come the dishonest. She needs a quiet place. Something private.” Azriel struggled to think where this man and his wife could possibly lodge, then said with great hesitancy, “There may be one place. I'm sorry, but it is the only thing I can think of. There is a small stable, a cave actually, behind the house. I truly wish I could think of something better.”
“That will be fine.”
“Micha'el,” Azriel called to the boy who was removing garbage from the cooking area. “I want you to clear a place in the stable for this man and his wife.” Then to the new guest, “Have your wife rest there on the bench by the door. Inside is no place for a woman.”
As the man helped his wife from the donkey, Azriel returned to the cooking area. “Gilead. Help your little brother clean the stable. We will have guests staying there.”
“Stable? Are you so greedy that now even the animals must give up their place of rest?” Malka chided.
“It's the man's woman, Malka. She is with child. There is no place left in the town. She is near to giving birth. I could not allow that under some tree or among these . . .,” he waived a hand toward the main room, “these men.”
“Give birth? Absolutely not. Ehud, help your father finish serving the food. Hedva, take over the kitchen. Oh, Azriel, a stable? To give birth in a stable? The poor child,” Malka said as she dried her hands and hurried out the door.
As Gilead rapidly swept the last of the dung from a section of the shelter, Micha'el scattered a generous portion of new straw. When all was ready, Malka approached the couple seated on the bench next to the house.
“Come, child. It's not much, but it is clean,” she said, helping the girl to rise.
The young woman took one step and faltered, clutching her stomach, and exhaling a small gasp.
“Oh, dear,” Malka said, putting an arm around the girl's waist. “It's not far and we will go slowly. Micha'el, tell your sister I need her help.”
The boy ran to the house, returning with Hedva before the visitors covered half the distance to the cave. The woman stumbled again and cried out softly. The contractions were coming more frequently. The man handed the bed mats he carried to Hedva, and easily swept his wife into his arms, to carry her into the stable. Hedva rushed ahead to spread the mats on the straw where the he laid his wife, and then stood back, watching closely as Malka knelt at her side to pat perspiration from the girl's pained brow. Concern for his wife etched deeper lines across the man's brow. He knelt at her side, taking one delicate hand in his to comfort her. He silently offered a prayer of thanks for finding someone like Malka who knew what to do.
Meanwhile, Micha'el went to the donkey patiently waiting where it had been left. Scratching the creature between its long ears, he looked toward the cave, and worried, too.
“Come, little one. Let me find you some food and water, and a place to rest your weary hooves,” he said, taking the lead rope and going to the cave.
As the others proceeded to the cleaned area, he placed the donkey in a nearby stall with a little grain and a bucket of water, all the while staring as the woman was lovingly laid onto the covered straw bed, again crying out in pain. He had added more straw than his mother said, yet worried there wouldn't be enough, that the bed wouldn't be soft enough. The man seemed to sense Micha'el's concern, glanced up at boy, smiled, and nodded appreciation.
Malka took charge and began issuing orders. “Micha'el, fetch clean cloth from the kitchen. Gilead, bring a bucket of water, then all you men wait outside.”
Azriel and his older sons worked feverishly until their inside guests began settling down for the night. At last he could drop exhausted onto a three-legged stool in the kitchen as the older boys cleaned the dishes. After a time he rose stiffly and went outside to check on the new arrivals. That Malka and Hedva had not returned to the house indicated the woman was close to giving birth, if she hadn't already.
Stepping into the pleasantly cool night he took up an oil lamp and made for the stable. Approaching the entrance he saw another lamp with two people huddled in its golden glow. Drawing closer, he could see Micha'el seated on the ground next to the new guest. Stopping a few meters away, he gazed in awe. In the boy's lap was a scroll. The man had one hand on his son's shoulder while holding a lamp in the other so Micha'el could see. Azriel listened as the man uttered a prayer then encouraged the boy to read from the Prophet Isaiah.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.”
Azriel gasped, the realization blindingly clear. Without knowing, he had put a holy man and his family in a stable. Before he could seek forgiveness, there came a newborn's cry from inside the cave. The man stood and stared at the entrance.
“From that sound you have become a father,” Azriel said. “And judging by the strength, it is a healthy child. Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” the man said, his attention focused on the stable entrance.
Presently, Malka appeared, looking tired, but smiling. “It's a boy, praise be to the giver of life, and as you must have heard, he is healthy. Go to your wife,” she said.
Azriel moved next to his wife, put an arm around her shoulders, and drew her near. She rest a weary head on his arm.
“Do you remember when Ehud arrived?” she asked.
“How could I forget. I didn't sleep for days before he came, nor for weeks after until he figured out the difference between night and day.”
“Well, how could he? Every time he so much as whimpered, you picked him up to play with him.”
“Isn't that what a father is to do?”
“Father,” Micha'el interrupted the light banter between husband and wife, “I've never noticed that star before,” he said, pointing into the night sky.
Azriel looked up with wonder and said, “I don't recall seeing it before, either. It must be new.”
“It seems to be directly over us,” Malka said. “It's beautiful. It must be an omen of a great event.”
Presently, their guest invited Azriel and Micha'el in to see his new son. Micha'el looked down at the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger. He was asleep. Looking up with an infectious smile Micha'el asked, “What will you name him?”
“I have been instructed by the Lord, praise be His Holy name, that he should be known by the Greek form of Joshua. He will be called Jesus,” the father answered.
Azriel was about to make a comment about the overt influence of their previous overlords when a soft commotion came from outside. Moving to the entrance he was taken back as a group of shepherds walked directly toward the stable.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“An angel of God, praise be His Holy name, appeared to us as we tend our sheep on the hillside and said unto us, “Fear not, for behold I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Then there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace be on earth, and good will toward men.””
Azriel stood with mouth open as he listened to the shepherds, and then turned to look back into the cave. The promised Messiah had come at last, not on a white horse, but as a babe. Slowly dropping to his knees the innkeeper began to praise God, tears coursing down brown cheeks as a voice whispered in his ear, “Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me, and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.”