Exquisite Hope

Go back in time, a couple of millenia with me:  It is now the month of Tishri (Sept/Oct), year 3758 of the Hebrew calendar.  From this point, only 200 years ago the Ming Dynasty was building the Great Wall of China, and the Mayan civilization created a calendar.   On this tiny little blue green planet, third from the modest star we call the Sun, we and all the angels and demons direct our attention to a minuscule village in the hills of Galilee to find a young couple, recently engaged, stressed in the preparations for a long awaited journey. All the beings that usually move in and out of the time spectrum sit on the edge of their seats at the end of a sabbath:

“Joe. Come see.” She hears nothing but the sound of the breeze behind the house. “JOE!” She speaks a little louder as she puts her right hand on her chair to maintain balance as she gets up, holding her round belly with her left. She walks in and through the house to find Joseph in the back, studying one of five unfinished carpentry projects. “Joe, I think I just saw the second star. It’s almost time to pack.”

“I only see one, and there are enough clouds that – well – I don’t know if we should pack tonight. Maybe we should just wait till morning, sleep in, have some breakfast and. . .” “It’s behind a cloud, but they are moving fast – just watch,” said Mary, nervous with natural anticipation on top of the hormones of a ripe first pregnancy. Within minutes, the clouds move out of the way to reveal the second star of the night. One more star and the sabbath is over, which means they begin packing for an eight day trip south. “Have you even prepared enough bread yet? Picked enough dates?” says Joseph. “Everything I can do was done before the shabbat – yes. It’s all yours now, unless you want me to pack the donkey.”  “Nooo ma’am,” said Joseph, “she’s never balanced when you pack her, and then she can’t walk straight. I’ll do it as soon as the third star appears.” Joseph leaned back in his adirondack chair and took another dip of hummus on his pita chip. “You know you shouldn’t be dipping that . . .” said Mary, just as the wind blown clouds revealed the third star. “Sabbath is over – I’m fine. Where did you put the bags last?”

“YOU put them in the back room last time you returned from Magdala, remember?”

“Oh. Right. Well have you cleaned the cloaks and my new tallit? I want the one with the tekhelet just in case we make it to the temple for next sabbath,” Joseph says.

“I got it I got it. Again, all my stuff was done before shabbat. I’m going to the bathroom again while you get everything into the bags,” Mary pressed.

After an hour or so of gathering up clothing and odds and ends and food and water, Joseph and Mary finally get their bags ready and settle into their respective beds by candle-light, hardly able to close their eyes for the anticipation of morning. After what seems like 15 minutes of sleep, a rooster crows from a house several blocks away. Joseph awakes, sees no light, and rolls over. Another 30 minutes and the same rooster clears his throat and crows again. “Joe. . . Joseph! There’s the dawn!!” Mary is up, dressed and struggling to lift a bag to move it outside. “Whaat? . . . I’m up . . . don’t pick that up – you’ll hurt yourself. Sit down and I’ll get it when I finish my morning constitutional.” Mary, knowing her limits, sits down and waits patiently, watching him take a copy of the Galilee Times into the bathroom.

The young couple finally manage their bags on to Mel the Donkey (short for Melchizadek, of course, the ancient king of Salem – now Jerusalem) and after agreeing to stop at the Krispy Falafel on the way out of town, they head out, down a dusty, rocky path, excited and nervous about this, the longest trip they’ve taken together.

As they travel southeast toward Nain, they are as enthusiastic and energetic as any young couple, except that she is a glowing balance of moods and fears and hopes. Joseph leads Mel as they meander through the rocks and boulders of the Galilee hills. Other travelers pass them on the trail, being less burdened without the extra weight of diapers and bottles and such, but this does not discourage M & J as they have settled into their own pace and they are content to be in the same place at the same time in eternity. After an hour or so they look up the hill toward the sun rising over Endor, where King Saul infamously consulted a witch to obtain advice from the Prophet Samuel, long dead.  (1 Sam.28)

“If you could ask one question about our future, what would it be, Joe?” said Mary.

“I would ask how you raise the child of Adonai.”

Mary was silent. Mary often thought more than she spoke, raising Joseph’s curiosity, but not usually to the point that he inquired, for fear he might not relish the response.

After they both walked for some time, pondering the magnitude of this journey, Mary speaks: “I would ask, if He is truly the Messiah then what does Adonai expect of us past his childhood,” says Mary. “The angel said we would give birth, but didn’t tell us much from there. . .” Joseph answers, carefully, “He will tell us as we need to know. Just as He would have enlightened Saul, had he been patient enough to avoid consulting witches. Nain  is over the next hill, let’s take a break there.” (Luke 7:11) As they sat at a roadside cafe on the edge of Nain, looking out over the Jezreel Valley, they considered their God-ordained place in the history of Israel and the land spread out before them. This is where Gideon defeated the Midianites as Israel continued their fight to take the Promised Land and this is where the Philistines routed King Saul at Mount Gilboa, visible to the south, and the hung him on the walls of Bethshean, on the Jordan River side of this valley.

Refreshed, M & J continue on and before turning east  at Mount Gilboa to descend the mountains down to the Jordan River, they pass through the old town where Jezebel was thrown out the window by her own eunuchs, to be eaten by dogs. (2 Kings 9) “If Jesus ever has a sister, let’s not name her Jezebel, ok Joe?”

“I’m with you. I would say Ruth, maybe.”

As the sky grows dim, our couple can see Bethshean in the distance. It’s a Roman town, which means as Jews they should be cautious, but they keep a low profile, explaining that they are traveling for the census called for by Quirinius Caesar, and that seemed to satisfy the guards. After checking a few places, they found an affordable but clean place to stay the night, hitched up old Mel and ducked into their quarters.

“Joe, did you hear that?”

“Hmm mmm..”

“Joe – I heard something. Wake up.”

“It’s not even light yet – go back to sleep – we’re fine.”

Mary cracked open the door and peered out into the pre-dawn blackness of the roman settlement. She was accustomed to the sounds of horses, goats, chickens, dogs and other domestic animals in Nazareth, but this was different. A growl – a roar even. Something wild.

Awake now, Joseph consoles his fiance’: “We’re in town; there’s nothing dangerous here but people, and they don’t sound like you’re describing. Calm down.”

“Calm down?! I know you didn’t. . .”

“No! No. I didn’t. I wouldn’t . . .” Joseph suddenly remembers his premarital counseling; “What direction is whatever you think you heard?”

As they greet Mel for the morning and begin loading her up, Mary explains that the noise came from down the hill to the east, and tries her best to mimic the sound, accomplishing nothing but a chuckle and a patronizing compliment from Joseph of how cute she is.

“Well Mary that’s the direction we’re going, so I guess we’ll just meet up with your monster and Mel and I will take it out when we find it, right Mel?” Mel snorts and looks toward the first beams of sun creating splashes of color in the few clouds of an otherwise dark sky as she swats an invisible bug with her tail.

As Mary leads Mel away for a last drink before departure, Joseph winds the straps of his tefillin around his arm and recites his morning shema. Adorned with his good new prayer shawl, he bows back and forth as he prays toward Jerusalem, now six days away:

Praised are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, creating light and fashioning darkness, ordaining the order of all creation.

You illumine the world and its creatures with mercy; in Your goodness, day after day You renew Creation. How manifold Your works, O Lord; with wisdom You fashioned them all. The earth abounds with Your creations. Uniquely exalted since earliest time, enthroned on praise and prominence since the world began, eternal God, with Your praise and prominence since the world began, eternal God, with Your manifold mercies continue to love us, our Pillar of strength, protective Rock, sheltering Shield, sustaining Stronghold.

Our praiseworthy God with vast understanding fashioned the rays of the sun. The good light He created reflects His splendor; radiant lights surround His throne. His heavenly servants in holiness exalt the Almighty, constantly recounted His sacred glory. Praise shall be Yours, Lord our God, for Your wondrous works, for the lights You have fashioned, the sun and the moon which reflect Your glory.

Our Rock, our Redeemer, our King, Creator of holy beings, You shall be praised forever. You fashion angelic spirits to serve You; beyond the heavens, they all await Your command. In chorus they proclaim with reverence words of the living God, eternal King. Adoring, beloved, and choice are they all, in awe fulfilling their Creator’s will. In purity and sanctity they raise their voices in song and psalm, extolling and exalting, declaring the power, praise, holiness, and majesty of God, the great, mighty, awesome King, the Holy One. One to another they vow loyalty to God’s kingship, one to another they join to hallow their Creator with serenity, pure speech, and sacred song, in unison chanting with reverence:

Holy, holy, holy, Adonai tzeva’ot; the whole world is filled with His glory.

As in the prophet’s vision, soaring celestial creatures roar, responding with a chorus of adoration:

Praised be the glory of the Lord throughout the universe.

To praiseworthy God they sweetly sing: the living, enduring God they celebrate in song. For He is unique, doing mighty deeds, creating new life, championing justice, sowing righteousness, reaping victory, bringing healing. Awesome in praise, Sovereign of wonders, day after day in His goodness He renews Creation. So sang the Psalmist: “Praise the Creator of great lights, for His love endures forever.” Cause a new light to illumine Zion. May we all soon share a portion of its radiance. Praised are You, Lord, Creator of lights.

Deep is Your love for us, Lord our God, boundless Your tender compassion. You taught our ancestors life-giving laws. They trusted in You, our Father and King. For their sake graciously teach us, Father, merciful Father, show us mercy; grant us discernment and understanding. Then will we study Your Torah, heed its words, teach its precepts and follow its instruction, lovingly fulfilling all its teachings. Open our eyes to Your Torah, help our hearts cleave to Your mitzvot. Unite all our thoughts to love and revere You. Then shall we never be brought to shame. Trusting in Your awesome holiness, we will delight in Your deliverance. Bring us safely from the ends of the earth, and lead us in dignity to our holy land. You are the Source of deliverance. You have called us from all peoples and tongues, constantly drawing us nearer to You, that we may lovingly offer You praise, proclaiming Your Oneness. Praised are You, Lord who loves His people Israel.

Your teaching is true and enduring. Your words are established forever. Awesome and revered are they, eternally right; well ordered are they, always acceptable. They are sweet and pleasant and precious, good and beautiful and beloved. True it is that eternal God is our King, that the Rock of Jacob is our protecting shield. He is eternal and His glory is eternal; He is God for all generations. His sovereign throne is firmly established; His faithfulness endures for all time.

His teachings are precious and abiding; they live forever. For our ancestors, for us, for our children, for every generation of the people Israel, for all ages from the first to the last, His teachings are true, everlasting. True it is that You are the Lord our God, even as You were the God of our ancestors. Our King and our ancestors’ King, our Redeemer and our ancestors’ Redeemer, our Creator, our victorious Stronghold. You have always helped us and saved us. Your name endures forever. There is no God but You.

You were always the help of our ancestors, a shield for them and for their children, our deliverer in every generation. Though You abide in the pinnacle of the universe, Your just decrees extend to the ends of the earth. Happy the one who obeys Your mitzvot, who takes to heart the words of Your Torah. You are, in truth, Lord of Your people, their defender and mighty King. You are first and You are last. We have no King or Redeemer but You. You rescued us from Egypt; You redeemed us from the house of bondage. The firstborn of the Egyptians were slain; Your firstborn were saved. You split the waters of the sea. The faithful You rescued; the wicked drowned. The waters engulfed Israel’s enemies; not one of the arrogant remained alive. Then Your beloved sang hymns and acclamation, extolling You with psalms and adoration. They acclaimed God King, great and awesome Source of all blessings, the everliving God, exalted in majesty, who redeems the meek, helps the needy and answers His people’s call. Praises to God supreme, ever praised is He. Moses and the people Israel sang with great joy this song to the Lord:

Who is like You, Lord, among all that is worshiped? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders? (Exodus 15:11)

The redeemed sang a new song for You. They sang in chorus at the shore of the sea, acclaiming Your sovereignty:

“The Lord shall reign throughout all time.” (Exodus 15:18)

Rock of Israel, rise to Israel’s defense. Fulfill Your promise to deliver Judah and Israel. Our Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, Adonai tzeva’ot is His name. Praised are You, Lord, Redeemer of the people Israel.

Joseph has been taught these words and recited these words twice a day as long as he can remember, but today he listens more carefully to his own words, given the weight of his mission and his location in a roman town. He finishes and jogs to catch up to Mary at the watering trough. He shoves his prayer accessories into the bags and they start down the hill toward the now bright sky.

Just as they round a curve of the trail, they find the source of Mary’s earlier fright: to the right of the trail is a roman arena complete with gated lion pens at the base, for the slaughter of those deemed dispensable for entertainment by the rulers. The lions are finishing their morning breakfast, intentionally kept light by the caretakers so as not to ruin their appetite for more game, later in the day when the crowds will come. Mary shivers as she thinks of this scene, the present roman occupation, and the prophecies of Isaiah about the Messiah. She says nothing and they quicken their pace through the wealth and discomfort of the marble streets of Bethshean. The fortress where Saul hung stands on the mountain in the background.

Before noon the couple reaches the cool water of the Jordan River and stops for a long respite to give Mel a break from her load and let Mary sit on a rock and soak her feet.

Both the flora and the frequency of travelers is more dense now than in the hills, as the water of the Jordan nourishes the landscape and attracts the travelers for the census to its banks and its fish. M & J are relieved to find shade and to know that much of their journey will be along this path to the south now, as the river runs down into the Dead Sea.

“We’ve traded the filth of the Romans for the wildlife of the river,” says Joseph; “but at least now if we have a problem we are traveling among family,” says Mary. “But some of Abraham’s children are no safer to us than the Romans . . .” Joseph reminds.

“Joe – feel this – He kicked!” Mary takes Joseph’s hand and places it softly on the left side of her belly. “He’ll be a football player if saving the world doesn’t work out as His first job,” Joseph jokes, as Mary jabs him in the ribs.

After several hours, M & J approach Salim.  After a meal in town and then a wash in the warmish springs of Aenon (where John the Baptist would be baptizing in several more years), they adjust their packs, rinse out their sandals and some of their clothes, and push on.

With the leaves of the willows and pistachio trees along the Jordan changing to their fall colors, and the bougainvillea still flowering, the path was a pleasant walk. The scenery and aromas did not ease the pain of Mary’s feet though, and her due-any-day condition did not allow her to comfortably sit on Mel too long at a time either. She did not complain, though, and Joseph was patient with her need for changes of travel mode and breaks.

But around dusk, the trail wound its way away from the river due to the steepness of the banks, and Joseph noticed that some people were catching up to them. These people gave him an uncomfortable feeling that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but he simply could not do anything to speed up, and the strangers seemed to be staying behind the couple even though they could easily pass by. M & J finally came to a dead stop to attempt to force them to pass on, but the three men stopped as well.

“What is your destination, young man? What a pretty girl you have with you . . .”

Mary is quiet, with her head covered, as Joseph responds cautiously: “We are traveling south for the census. What about you?”

“Don’t concern yourself with us – what do you have in your bags? You have quite a load there,” the shortest man says as he begins to reach toward a bag on Mel’s closest side.

As Joseph takes a step closer to him to guard the bags, the taller man steps between Mary and Joseph taking Joseph’s attention from his property to his betrothed. The third man slips around to the other side of Mel, spooking the donkey.

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With that, Mel kicks backward, knocking the third man down, causing the short one to laugh hysterically, but angering the short one closest to Joseph, such that he grabs the bag and pulls, further upsetting the donkey, who kicks again, this time throwing the top bag off. Mary just ducks and the bag hits the tall man square in the face. With one man down and one holding his face in pain, the short man recognizes his sudden loss of control and runs down the hill into the brush, with the other men picking themselves up and trying to get away from Mel.

“Adonai is surely with us,” says Joseph.

“Immanuel.” Mary simply says the word and thanks God for His protection.

“Jehovah Nissi,” they say together, and repack the bags from the ground. Joseph stacks a few rocks on the side of the path to mark their thankfulness for God’s protection, as Father Jacob built similar altars to mark the sites of blessings, and they trudge on stroking Mel as they walk.

The path slopes back down to the river after some time, and M & J can now see Abel Meholah in the distance. They will sleep here, in Elisha’s home town, for the night, and given the stress of the day, they are more than ready to stop.

Walking into town with the sun setting to the right, Mary is itching to take off her sandals and top cloak, and Joseph’s stomach is growling so much it is distracting Mel’s attention from the rocky path.

As they begin looking for a place to stay the night, Mary says aloud: “I am amazed that we are staying in the same town where Elijah lived. Do you think they know which house, or if it’s even still here? I never even really thought of him living in a house, so much as just wandering and doing miracles and preaching. . .”

Joseph laughs.

“What?!” exclaims Mary, stopping in her tracks.

“Oh nothing . . .  nothing at all.”

Mary holds Mel back. “You tell me what you’re laughing about or I’m not taking another step and you won’t eat.”

“Ok ok. It’s EliSHa, not EliJah. There’s a difference.”

“I know there’s a difference! Elisha is the one who never died, right?”

“No, dear. I’m afraid not.”

“Well why are their names so similar? One of them should have used his middle name or something if they were going to be so close together.”

“THAT I can agree with. Elisha was EliJah’s protege. Where Elijah kind of appeared out of nowhere, made enemies of rulers, and was swept into the sky at the end, Elisha lived here at his family home and because of his connection with Elijah he was sought out by local tribal leaders and Kings for his wisdom. Elijah actually pulled against God some in his time, but Elisha never did. Elijah fought the prophets of Baal, but Elisha performed more miracles, maybe even more humbly, than Elijah.”

“Wow. And hey look! Here’s a sign that says this old stone house was where he grew up!” Mary is proud of her find, but they still need a place to stay, so they move along, trying to find a spot before they have no light left. Another two blocks and they find a friendly family who invites them to come in for the night.

After M & J tie Mel outside, unpack, and settle in with the Horowitz family, they learn there is a bigger place across town that also claims to be the home of Elisha. But that one charges 4 sheqels for tours, and that’s 4 more than M & J have to spend on this trip. After a good meal, stories of mutual friends and distant relatives, and then prayer, they settle in for their most peaceful night’s sleep yet.

Mary wakes up a little after sunrise to the sound of Joseph’s voice in the next room talking with their host. She rubs her eyes and steps into the next room to find the two men talking like old friends while Mrs. Horowitz prepares breakfast. Mary offers to help but is quickly refused, being urged to sit down and be served as she has a long trip ahead, and the Horowitz’s do not. She complies, anticipating what’s in store today and tonight.

During a leisurely breakfast the couples discuss the fact that there is no town ahead for two days of travel, the next town being the small but ancient settlement of Gilgal. The Horowitzs again bless M & J with generosity by providing them breads, dates and figs for the coming two days. “We just felt like Adonai wanted us to give it to you,” they explained. By this time M & J knew better than to argue with or resist God’s provision. They simply caught each other’s eyes as they both murmured “Jehovah Jireh.”

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The group said the morning shema (NW2) together, relishing this last taste of the fellowship of common beliefs, and Mary, Joseph, and Mel set off with full bellies and good spirits. They knew they would be camping in the wild come dark, and they started at a slow but steady pace to cover as much ground as possible before they would have to set up camp. They were thankful that, according to their new friends, the trail would be mostly close to water on this leg of the trip.

As our young couple and their favorite donkey ambles along, the landscape slopes down to the river, flattens, and the trees fade into more of a desert terrain. The lack of shade wasn’t a problem in the morning hours, but by noon the sun was too warm for comfort, and there was no relief from it.

“Why me, Joe? Why us? Not that I’m complaining – just amazed, humbled that He would choose us, of all the people in the world.”

“I wish I understood that. But I don’t. Adonai knows your heart better than I do, or even you do, though, and apparently He favors you as He favored Noah. Isn’t that what the angel Gabriel told you?”

“He said I ‘found favor with Adonai,’ but I just don’t understand how or why He should favor me over anyone else. There are plenty of girls who love the Lord in Israel.”

“What do you think He expects of us? How does a human act as father or mother to the Son of Adonai? Am I to correct Him? Discipline Him? You are certainly His mother, but how much does the Father want me to be His father? I trust Adonai but I’m unsure about the whole thing.”

Mary stopped in the heat of the afternoon desert sun, and with squinting eyes inquired, “What do you mean you are unsure?”

“Well put yourself in my sandals. . . how would you feel if your fiance’ was pregnant and you knew the child wasn’t yours?” Joseph gestures with the finger and thumb of the hand he’s not using to guide Mel: “I was this close to breaking it off when I found out you were pregnant.”

Mary’s eyes well up with this news, and she sits down on a rock with her back to Joseph so he wouldn’t see her tears. “You would leave me alone? I wondered why I didn’t hear from you for a while. . . What stopped you? Do you still want to leave?”

“Mary! Of course not! I’m here aren’t I? Why do you even question that four days into our trip? I love you! The same angel that visited you also came to me and explained, but how else would I believe such a thing?”

“Because I told you. You could have simply believed me.”

“You don’t understand.”

“No Joe. No I don’t.”

They traveled in uncomfortable silence now, hearing nothing but the sound of sand and gravel under their feet, and the occasional snort of Mel.

After some time, Mary looked over at Joseph, who turned his head just in time to avoid eye contact, which discouraged her more, and then when Joseph glanced at her, she tugged at her head covering to shield her eyes from his gaze. This continued for several more miles, until the shadows grew long on the path, and a breeze picked up.

“We better set up camp,” said Joseph, in a business-like tone.

Mary, who had been riding Mel for some time, climbs off and gives a sudden cry and gasp.

“What? Are you still upset about. . .”

“It hurts, Joe – no – I feel like it’s happening. He’s coming. Now.”

“Can you hold it?”

“It’s not like using the bathroom! I feel like my water is about to break. . .” Mary groans and sits on the ground, leaning back against a rock on a slope.

Joseph places a rock on Mel’s rope and kneels down with Mary to comfort her, pulling her hair back and holding her hand as she gasps for breath with the pain.

They both forget about their tiff in the moment, the pain begins to subside, and Mary’s breathing slows to normal, as does Joseph’s heart rate. He helps her up and walks her down to the river to soak her feet as he sets up camp.

Joseph, being a carpenter, finds driftwood and brush from the riverbank to construct a lean-to on a rise several feet above the water. Here he removes the stones from under the cover and makes them into a fire-ring with a modest fire going. After laying out some of the dates and bread from the Horowitz home, he calls out to Mary and she comes up, feeling much better now.

“I really felt like it was time,” she said. “Mom and Elizabeth told me that can happen, but I just didn’t know what it would feel like. That was awful.”

“Hopefully we will make it at least to Jerusalem, if not Bethlehem, before He comes,” says Joseph.

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After a satisfying dinner, M & J lie down and look up at the starry sky above them, both considering again why the Creator of all this would choose them to parent His son. Neither speak though, partly out of fear of re-starting the conversation and partly out of shear awe. They drift off to sleep, keeping one another warm, with a smoldering fire in front of them.

Although they each wake up from time to time during the night, they do so at different times, and drift back to sleep quickly.

As the first beam of light breaks over the hills east of the Jordan, Joseph awakens to the sound of rushing water below. The river has risen a foot or so since the night before, apparently due to rain in the hills of Galilee. As this water has now made it down to the Samaria area, Joseph is pleased that he remembered to set up camp further up from the river, where the packs would not get wet.  He takes Mel down to drink while Mary begins to stir, and then they share some figs and pack up.

“My back hurts. My ankles hurt. My right arm feels stiff,” states Mary.

“Me too. Hopefully we can find a better place tonight. You know I do trust you. You know that, right?”

“I do. I’m sorry, Joe. This is difficult, though. But I know you’re with me. And I know He is with us. We need to remember that He called us both into this.”

Joe agrees, and reassures Mary that as long as the three of them stay united, they will be fine. “A chord of three strands is not easily broken. I read that somewhere.”

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“Give me your hand. He’s moving again.” Mary places Joseph’s hand in place to feel Jesus shift within her.

M & J and Mel, and Jesus, continue on toward the City of David and the first Christmas.

The sun was barely out when Mary was awakened by the baby’s kicking.  She said her morning prayers down at the river in the solitude, and then roused Joseph from a hard sleep.

“I had a dream,” he said, “there were Roman soldiers and an elderly woman with her dog. The woman was being questioned about where a certain man was, and the soldiers were threatening to hurt the dog if she didn’t give them information. She refused and they took the dog, but then I woke up.”

Mary expresses her hopes that they keep their distance from any Roman soldiers as Joseph unties Mel to go down to the river for water. She packs the bags and he recites the morning prayer at the river while Mel drinks. She takes his phylacteries and tallit and packs them away, he loads the packs onto Mel and leaves the lean to for the next travelers, and they hit the trail.

“I think we can be at Gilgal by noon. I’m hoping to rest there and then make it to Jericho for the night,” Joseph explains.

As the sun warms their muscles and the walking loosens their stiffness, they notice that others are coming from behind. But these are not suspicious like before, so much as a couple of families traveling together on the way to Jerusalem. Two couples, a set of grandparents, and several loud children, with a sheep for each couple.

“Come back here! Don’t hit your brother! Stay away from the river! Put that stick down!”

“She looked at me! How much further? Watch this, Dad! Look, a donkey!”

Mel was not a particularly social animal, and was not accustomed to children, so when the boys came running toward her, she stopped in her tracks and brayed loudly, refusing to move. The other parents gave an ambivalent call to the children to come back to them, but did nothing else to help. The other group finally caught up and passed M & J, and the unruly boys left with them, as M & J stayed behind to let Mel calm down and give the others some space.

“Is Jesus going to act like that?” Joe inquires as he looks at Mary in disbelief, that the parents did not keep a closer eye on the kids. “Surely Jesus will be more obedient, not just because He is God’s son, but also because we will never let Him out of our sight…”

Mary responds: “Jesus will certainly be obedient, but I think we need to remember who He is as he grows and gains His own understanding of who He is. His obedience will surely shift from us to our Father as He gains understanding.”

They both continue walking, pondering again the difficult and fragile relationships to come, but placing faith in God to direct them – all three.

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After a couple of hours in the now hot overhead sun, they reached a spot in the Jordan with the same families from before, plus others, playing and resting in the edge of the water. The water was higher than in the other seasons, as it often is in the month of Tishri – being harvest time, and the rocks standing in the center were barely visible.

Mary and Joseph stopped here and read a passage together:

12 Now therefore take twelve men from the tribes of Israel, from each tribe a man. 13 And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap.”

14 So when the people set out from their tents to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, 15 and as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest),16 the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho. 17 Now the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan.

And the people of Israel did just as Joshua commanded and took up twelve stones out of the midst of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, just as the Lord told Joshua. And they carried them over with them to the place where they lodged and laid them down[a] there. And Joshua set up[b] twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day. 10 For the priests bearing the ark stood in the midst of the Jordan until everything was finished that the Lord commanded Joshua to tell the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua.

“Those are the rocks. Right there. Why do they let their children play here, casually, like this? This is a holy place.” Joseph was mildly indignant, but not enough to object to anyone but Mary. They turned west at this point and began walking away from the river towards Jericho, determined to teach Jesus reverence.

Once they came out of the reach of the sound of the river, and the coolness of the air near the water. they reached the place where the Israelites camped, as marked by more stones. There were other families already here, and children (better behaved ones) were asking questions just as the scripture said they would:

19 The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho.20 And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. 21 And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, 24 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”

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Mary and Joseph stood back from the other families, prayed over the spot, considered God’s deliverance of His people, and the new role that they were playing, and their son would play, in the future deliverance.It was overwhelming, and so they moved on. None of the other people had any idea what was happening in their midst, what was about to happen, or the fact that the long awaited Messiah had just passed through.

M  & J reached Jericho as the sun was setting, so they just had time to hitch Mel and settle in before it was too dark to see the historic town very well.

Waking up in Jericho, Mary and Joseph had the Mountains of Judea to the  South and West and the Jordan River valley from which they just came to the East and North. They just traveled basically the same route from the river that Joshua and their ancestors did before them. From the city, they could look across the Jordan to see Mount Pisgah and Mount Nebo, which was the closest Moses ever came to the Promised Land,  and they knew that somewhere over there was where the Hand of God buried him.

As M & J began to pack Mel for the last days of the trip, they noticed that several other couples and families were doing the same around town. While they enjoyed their solitude and time with one another, they also appreciated the idea of safety in numbers as they came into more populated, and “occupied” areas. There were more Roman Soldiers now than they had seen before, and some were cordial but some were not at all.

Before they left town, Joseph decided to treat Mary to new sandals, since they were coming back into rocky hill country, and she appreciated the gift. Mel was looking a little forlorn at this point, but the best they could do was to promise her a good day or two of rest in Bethlehem.

They started up the path, along with a mixed group of several other Israelites, ranging from young to old to ancient. Around late morning they were hearing rumors from ahead about a grizzly scene over the next hill, but they had no choice but to trudge on, and see whatever it was.

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Finally, they topped the hill and saw several crosses along the roadside ahead and down the hillside, one of which bore the body of the taller man who had tried to rob them a few days ago, further North. He was barely alive and struggling for breath. The travelers generally took the opposite side of the street and averted their eyes to avoid any closeness, but as Joseph was leading Mel who was carrying Mary, Mary’s eyes caught the eyes of the bandit. He gasped: “Help me, ma’am, please – just a drink of your water.” Joseph urged her to look away, but her compassion was too strong. She dismounted the donkey and walked over to the foot of the cross.

“I can’t ignore his suffering, Joe. I just can’t.” As Joseph reminded her who this was, and that he had no compassion on them when they met previously, she found a stick, tied a bit of cloth around the end, wet it, and lifted it up to his mouth. “Someday, perhaps someone will have similar compassion on one of our family, if we ever need it,” she explained. “and who knows – he may have never actually hurt anyone – you know the Roman justice system is corrupt.”

Joseph hurried her along, as the others in the group now kept their distance from the crosses as well as Mary and Joseph. They traveled on.

Up and down, up and down, winding through passes and valleys, after over half the day traveling, they had talked with several of the other travelers (those willing to speak with them) and learned of distant relations with a few. This reminded Mary of family and home. “How long do you think we can visit mother in Jerusalem?”

“We can spend one night there, but we have to get going in the morning to make it to Bethlehem before Shabbat begins.” Joseph got along well with Mary’s family in Judea and though he wanted to stay on schedule, he looked forward to good food and friendly faces.

They finally crested the Mount of Olives, and looked out over the Kidron Valley at Jerusalem. They stopped to take it in as they rested on a low wall.

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“The Temple. Home. Our spiritual home.” Joseph was not an overly emotional man, but this sight choked him up a little. “So much history. So many occupations and destructions and rebuilds. Look how magnificent Herod has made the Temple!”

“Yes . . . I’m not sure what to think of him. He rebuilt our Temple but I believe his loyalty is with the Romans,” Mary said, quietly so only Joseph could hear.

“Even God Himself has come so close to destroying this city, from that very spot. . ” said Joe.

“But He relented. His love outweighs His anger. His grace and mercy overwhelm His jealousy.” Mary’s eyes welled up as she considered His grace, and the fact that She was carrying It.

As they began to move on again, they stepped carefully along the rocky path down the Mount of Olives, stopping again in among the olive trees of Gethsemane to enjoy some shade before their final leg of the day’s trip. “Just over there are the . . .”

Mary finished Joe’s sentence, “tombs of Zechariah, Malachi and Haggai. I know.”

“Did you know? How did you know that?” Joe doesn’t hold back his surprise.

“While you have been working on your projects, I’ve been reading. Especially after the Angel Gabriel visited me,” explains Mary. “Just because I’m quieter than you doesn’t mean I know less.”

Joseph is pleasantly amazed at the woman to whom He is pledged to be married. “I should write a song: Mary Did You Know,” he joked.

“If you did, I would write one too: More Than You Think,” Mary quipped back.

“Let’s enter on the North side of the Temple. That’s closest to your parent’s house.”

As they enter the city gate, a world of busyness and bustle are all around them. Streets are lined with markets, butcher shops and all sorts of languages and peoples. M & J tighten up just to stay together. Here a Roman soldier is questioning someone about cheating someone else in an exchange of money, there an old Jebusite man is refusing to sell to an almost as old Jewish man, claiming the Jebusites own this land and the Israelites are just “occupying” it, to which the Israelite argues that God gave it to the Jews, to which the Jebusite retorts “Not MY God.” Then they both agree the Romans have no claim at all, and then M & J are engulfed in the crowd again, until they make it to a back street where Anne and Joachim’s house is.

“Mama!”

“Mary!”

“You’re huge!” “. . . Thanks Papa . . .”

Anne then says, “Mary guess who showed up last night? Elizabeth, Zechariah, come on out . . .”

Mary screams with delight to see Elizabeth, and then puts her arms out: “I must hold John . . come here  . . . look at that hair! . . .”

As Zechariah, Joachim and Joseph go outside to unpack Mel, the ladies dote over baby John and insist on pampering Mary as they prepare the evening meal.

After an evening of memories and laughter with family, M & J went to bed. Ms. Anne insisted that Mary take their bed, being “large with child,” and no one objected, at least out loud. She slept peacefully with the exception of one dream of the cross outside Jericho, which awakened her in a cold sweat. Once she fell back to sleep, she slept until a rooster crowed and she could hear voices and footsteps in the house.

“Well good morning mother-to-be! I have fig cakes ready if you want one,” Mother Anne was a master of hospitality even though, or maybe especially because, she had family sleeping on all her furniture and floors. “We have a lot of cooking to do today – tonight is the beginning of Shabbat you know.”

“Oh, right, Joseph wants to be settled in, in Bethlehem before sunset.”

“You’re not staying here tonight? You’re coming back though to stay longer, right? That’s not a question… nevermind . . . you will be coming back here after you register in Bethlehem. I’ll have things ready the morning after Shabbat,” Ms. Anne decreed.

“We will be here . . .” Joseph said, smiling as he walked through the front door. He and Joachim had just finished watering and packing up Mel, re-balancing everything based on Joachim’s suggestions on how it could be done better than Joseph had it.

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“It’s going to be slow going today because of the crowds. You kids eat a good breakfast but then you need to be moving along if you’re going to find a place in Bethlehem before dark.” Joachim had the best of intentions in his instructions, but left Mary feeling a little rushed.

“Yes Papa. I think we will be fine. Mel will get us there,” she responded.

With that, they said their goodbyes, and Ms. Anne and Elizabeth made a ceremonious presentation of some swaddling cloths made by them especially for baby Jesus. Mary welled up but held back tears as she took the gift, hugged the givers and then with one hand on her belly, walked down the street and into the throngs. Heading South through the city, they walked by the base of the western wall of the Temple, and then out of the southern gate, by King David’s old palace. M & J both breathed a sigh of relief to be outside the narrow, crowded streets of the city, but traffic was still heavy and they knew Joachim was right that it would take longer than usual.

A mile or two south of town, having heard nothing but the mixture of the voices around them and the crunch of the dirt under their feet, Mary starts a conversation: “Funny how Adonai works, isn’t it, Joe? If the Israelites had killed everyone in their path as God instructed, King David wouldn’t have bought the Temple Rock from a Jebusite, because they would all be gone, and Boaz wouldn’t have married Ruth, because she would have never been born, and even back in Jericho, Rahab wouldn’t have survived.”

Joseph, intrigued by Mary’s line of thought, responds: “Adonai uses our disobedience as well as our obedience for His purposes. Neither one takes Him by surprise. He lives outside of our Time, so even as He gave Joshua’s army their initial marching orders, He knew they would not actually wipe everyone out, and He could see that the people of this area would live together. The fact that Jesus has Rahab from Jericho and Ruth the Moabite in His bloodline shows us that Adonai loves everyone, and accepts into His kingdom all who accept Him.”

About this time, M & J can look around them and instead of seeing the walls of Jerusalem, they are looking at some of the very fields where Ruth and Boaz worked, where David tended his sheep as a boy, and where shepherds were tending sheep as they and Mel walk by.

“I see Bethlehem up at the top of the hill now! We’re almost there,” Mary said with excitement in her voice. It was just past noon now, so feeling no rush, they stopped for a snack and a drink for Mel. Other travelers passed by steadily as they rested.

“You know what I think is funny,” says Joe, ” . . . the fact that your uncle Z was so surprised to hear from God in the Holy of Holies. I mean, isn’t that what he goes in there for? I thought the priests heard from God everytime they went in, but when Uncle Z actually did see an angel, he didn’t even believe what he was told!?”

“Don’t be too hard on him. Each priest does that maybe once in a lifetime, so he was nervous going in, and of all things he didn’t expect that news, even if he did see an angel,” Mary points out.

“Just sayin,” – Joe.

The walk is difficult going up the hills to Bethlehem, but they finally reach the edge of town. “The City of David,” says Joe. “We made it. Let’s check the La Quinta first – there’s always a Denny’s next door.”

No vacancy.

“Let’s try the Days Inn. There’s a Krispy Shawarma at the edge of their parking lot,” suggests Mary.

All booked up.

“Let’s keep walking. There is surely something on the next block.” – Joe

“Skip the Motel 6” says Mary. “I don’t like that number. I’d rather sleep in a cave or a manger.”

“Be careful what you wish for. . . . Let’s stop for some lunch and find something afterwards” Joseph says.

Mary: “Maybe we can find a place that makes Baklava as well as the place down the street back in Nazareth.”

“Not possible,” – Joseph.

After a relaxing lunch, the restaurant owner reminds them that rooms are not available because Tishri is the month of holidays, which means travel, plus most people are staying the night where they are at this time of day because they won’t do work, including packing their animal or traveling on the Shabbat, which starts in only a couple of hours.

“That’s why we need a place soon,” responds Joseph.

“There is one place further up the hill that may be willing to help. The inn-keeper is a devout Jew and will do whatever He can for you if he knows who your family is.”

With sore feet and discouraged hearts, M & J make their way up the hill. Just before they knock on the door of the spot the restaurant owner described, the owner steps out to meet them. “I’m sorry – I’m all full up and nobody is leaving tonight, but if you’re willing, I’ll show you the manger.”

Joseph to Mary: “What did I say . . .”

Mary to Joseph: “I’m feeling it again. Contractions. I don’t think it’s a false alarm this time.”

Joseph and Mary to the Inn Keeper: “We’ll take it.”

The Inn Keeper leads them into a cave behind the house, and shoos a few of the animals out as he goes in first. “My son Aaron will be here shortly to sweep this out and help you unpack. Young lady, when you go in, you will find a comfortable place to sit just to your right, and a bigger area to make a bed further in to the left. Here’s a candle.”

As the sun begins to color the clouds with a myriad of pastels, young Aaron comes to sweep out the floor as Joseph is bringing in the bags. Mary is sitting on the seat just inside, focusing on her breathing now. “Why didn’t *gasp* we just stay at Mama’s *clenching teeth* house . . . this would have been easier there. . . Where is Elizabeth when I need her?”

“I’m here,” says Joseph, “we can do this.”

“We?” and the pain stops. “Ok, I can breath again. Mom said it would happen in waves . .”

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Joseph  – “The sun hasn’t completely set, but there is one star already out. I’ve never see one so bright.”

Aaron follows a goat trotting in, just to catch it and pull it back outside, trying not to look as Mary begins breathing heavily with pain again.

“Ok Joseph.  .  . this is *clenching and puffing* IT! Mary tightens her grip on her seat and pushes until she can’t breathe . .

Joseph shouts with Joy: “Emmanuel. JESUS. He’s here, Mary. YOU DID IT! Ten toes, ten fingers . . . Joe cuts the cord, wipes Him off and hands the Baby to Mary as he finds the cloth that Ms. Anne and Elizabeth gave them. “Adonai did it.” Mary says as she re-situates herself to hold the baby. Joseph cleans up a little and puts some hay on the floor and over to the right, by the door where the animal usually eat.

The world seems to shrink in and become quiet as the new parents hold their baby and touch their child’s face and hands with no one around to know what just happened. Outside, all the spirit world watches in silence, recognizing the significance of this birth, the Hope it will bring, the Dissonance it will cause, the Peace it will give, the Torture and Death that is just years away, and the Victory that will follow. The Spirits see all this as a single moment, without the filter of the lens of time.

At this moment, while Mary and Joseph are resting in the quiet cave, three men in Saba, Persia, – Gaspar, Baldasar, and Melchior – are studying the stars when they detect something uncommon. Based on this they begin another historic journey. (Journal of Marco Polo, Ch. XI)

Simultaneously, a single angel appears to the shepherds M & J saw on the way in, at the base of the hill:

10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”[d]

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

When the shepherds left, Joseph made a place to sleep, and then sat down with Mary to admire their Son in the quiet Shabbat evening.

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