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Recapturing the Awe of Christmas
By John Blase
David C. CookCopyright © 2009 John Blase
All rights reserved.
So many others have tried their hand at putting together a story of the wonderful harvest of Scripture and history that took place among us, using reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses who served this Word with their very lives. Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story's beginning, I decided to write it all out for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught.
During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah. His name was Zachariah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron. Her name was Elizabeth. Together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God. But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old.
It so happened that as Zachariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering. Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah was paralyzed in fear.
But the angel reassured him, "Don't fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You're going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He'll achieve great stature with God.
"He'll drink neither wine nor beer. He'll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother's womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God's arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he'll get the people ready for God."
Zachariah said to the angel, "Do you expect me to believe this? I'm an old man and my wife is an old woman."
But the angel said, "I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news. But because you won't believe me, you'll be unable to say a word until the day of your son's birth. Every word I've spoken to you will come true on time—God's time."
Meanwhile, the congregation waiting for Zachariah was getting restless, wondering what was keeping him so long in the sanctuary. When he came out and couldn't speak, they knew he had seen a vision. He continued speechless and had to use sign language with the people.
There were a few enjoying this. Earthy old friends.
"At your age you'll need more than an angel's help."
He laughed silently as his head bobbed up and down. True. He had long ago put the dream of children to rest. Now he was being asked to rouse hope.
His hands rose to say, "Enough, my good friends. I'm going home." He rubbed his throat, a gesture that was becoming a habit.
They all stood and walked the aged priest to the door amidst backslaps and more laughter. As he stepped across the doorway, he turned back to wave. A single tear crawled down his cheek. What was this? The corners of his eyes had been silent for years. He thumbed the tear and turned to go.
His skeptic's walk was quick and nervous. He had known her almost all his life, and she him. "Elizabeth of the daughters of Aaron," he used to call her. She would always smile a girl's smile at that address. But that was when they dreamt together. He realized that one day he must have stopped hoping, the day she became just "Elizabeth." Another tear. He rubbed his throat.
His pace slowed as a grin lined his face. "Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John ... many will delight in his birth." He stopped in the middle of the path and looked heavenward. He mouthed words only the Mighty One could hear: "Who am I that you are mindful of me? Why should you touch her womb in these old days with new life? What kind of man-child is this to be born of her, this one named 'John'?"
He rubbed his whiskered throat, then placed both hands on his broad hips and began to laugh. The boys playing in the street heard nothing. Senile old man. Zachariah's thoughts returned to earth as he eyed the boys. "My son will soften your parents' hearts to you. My son. He will be great. My son. John." Another tear. "The angel told me so."
He resumed his walk, quickly, hopefully. He had to get home. He had signed, "I'll only be gone a little while." She'd worry if he was gone too long. He knew this, for he knew her, and she him. When evening came, he would lie with her. She would welcome an old priest's advances because she was ever hopeful. He knew this. She was "Elizabeth of the daughters of Aaron," and she would bear his son.
He saw her in the distance, sweeping. She saw him and waved. A girl's smile was on her face. Another tear on his.CHAPTER 2
When the course of his priestly assignment was completed, he went back home. It wasn't long before his wife, Elizabeth, conceived. She went off by herself for five months, relishing her pregnancy. "So, this is how God acts to remedy my unfortunate condition!" she said.
People had known her as a woman who lived honorably before God, careful in her keeping of the commandments. She had known herself as a woman of sorrows, barren. The only thing she would ever nurse was the grief that she could not bear Zachariah a son. It was her "unfortunate condition."
She had accepted the will of the Mighty One long ago. "Let it be to me," she had prayed when her body no longer bled the blood of life. Those were words familiar to her family. The descendants of Aaron knew God's ways are not our own.
Just the sight of a nursing mother would pick the old wound. A baby's faint cry could cause her to jumble words, forget what she had intended to say. "Please, let it be to me" was the prayer behind the prayer that would not die.
But that was then. Almost five months ago.
Now it was as if she were living in a dream. She had sensed the truth that first morning. Beneath the thickened hips, the coarse hair on her head, and the cracks in her fingernails, life stirred. There had been no immediate proof for the skeptic's mind, only the knowing of a woman that something had changed, something was different. After that the physical evidence came each morning as she dressed. Her belly slowly swelled and her breasts plumped. Her skin remembered a young girl's glow. "So, this is how God acts to remedy my unfortunate condition!" she said.
And he had known that morning as well. He had just come in from relieving himself. Again. For some reason he had not seen her standing there. He went to his chair and sat down and started to rub his throat. Then he saw her. His fingers started to follow their habit, but stopped. He stared at her. And he knew.
She said nothing. He made no gesture. He stood and walked the few steps across the room to her. She noticed the tear that spilled from the old man's eye. He took her hands in his and held them tightly. A familiar gesture: "We can do this." She leaned in to kiss his weathered cheek, and he surprised her by turning his face so their lips met. It was something he used to do when they were young. Surprise. Spring had returned to the winter of their days.
She missed him. But she knew this time away had been necessary. Zachariah had signed, "We can do this," but she knew that some things only a woman can do. There would be plenty for him to do after the child was born. She needed these days to relish her pregnancy before the Mighty One and to pray for the son of her womb. And Elizabeth of the daughters of Aaron also prayed for her people, for she knew with the knowing of a woman that her son would be indifferent to their tastes. Zachariah's son would speak with a voice her husband knew nothing of. She was carrying "John"—the beloved of God. "Let it be."CHAPTER 3
In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin's name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:
You're beautiful with God's beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.
She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, "Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.
He will be great,
be called 'Son of the Highest.'
The Lord God will give him
the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob's house forever—
no end, ever, to his kingdom."
Mary said to the angel, "But how? I've never slept with a man."
The angel answered,
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
will be called Holy, Son of God.
"And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God."
And Mary said,
Yes, I see it all now:
I'm the Lord's maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.
Then the angel left her.
The theologians have rendered us mindless God-slaves, wisps of cloudy wings, doing nothing but the bidding of the Mighty One. Theologians. There is so much they do not know.
I found her just as He said she would be found: sitting on her bedding, barefooted, knees pulled up to her chest, arms wrapped tightly around them, chin resting on her knee-tops. I saw why she had gained the favor of the Mighty One. I liked this daughter-of-Eve-to-be-the-mother-of-God.
"But how? I've never slept with a man."
I expected this. But unlike that old priest's, hers was not the doubting of a skeptic but rather the wondering of a child.
"But how? I can't see it."
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Highest hover over you. Mary, you have nothing to fear." The Mighty One had expressly said, "Herald the news, Gabriel. Don't report it." I would have liked to elaborate further, but Mary would have to live out the details of my news in days to come. Truths unlived are not truths.
Then she paused and looked away. I have spoken to many of God's children, and their eyes are always transfixed on me. They should be. I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God. But Mary's gaze wandered for a moment. But what I initially took for a distracted mind was rather a devoted heart.
Her eyes returned to me. "Let it be with me." Ah, the Mighty One had chosen well. Her words were not resigned, but faith-full. The faith of a child. Of such is the Mighty One's kingdom.
"Cousin Elizabeth? Really? Old Elizabeth? But how?"
"Nothing, you see, is impossible with God. Mary, you have nothing to fear. I have told you all you need to know for now. You are more ready than you realize, stronger than you know. God is with you. Now I must go."
But I did not want to go. Faith is rare, at least true faith. Yes, the word is often used, but the reality is hard to find. Yet here I found it, in an earthen vessel surrounded by an earthen room. I liked Mary.
I left her just as He said I would: barefooted, sitting on her bedding, knees pulled up to her chest, arms wrapped tightly around them, chin resting on her knee-tops. She looked older now. Human eyes would not recognize this, but mine have seen much.
The Mighty One had revealed glimpses to me, what days ahead would hold for this glorious girl. Her cousin's leaping womb. Joseph's broad shoulders. The back of a borrowed burro. Herod's jealous-red face. The cries of the innocent. The breath of stable animals. The agony of pushing the Mighty One out into this world.
I found myself praying for the favored one. Mary had so much to carry.CHAPTER 4
Mothers and Sons
Mary didn't waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah's house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You're so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!
And Mary said,
I'm bursting with God-news;
I'm dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I'm the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them
It's exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then went back to her own home.
We were standing in the approach of dusk. I had only just returned to Zachariah's house after my time away. He bent to one knee to rub the good earth.
It's unusual to see someone running in the hill country, especially at this time of day. My first thought was shock. Has something happened? An accident of some kind? Is that a girl? What is she saying?
"Zachariah! Zachariah, get up! Someone is coming!"
His voice was silent, but his eyesight was still that of a younger man. He paused and then smiled. His eloquent hands waved my anxiety away. I waited just a moment more. "Mary? Little Mary? Child, what in heaven's name?"
She ran holding her belly, as if carrying something fragile but vital. As she reached me, I took her shoulders: "Child, slow down. What is it?"
She spoke directly to me, but her gaze passed through me. At her first word my son moved violently within me. He has been moving since the beginning; I know he will be born a man of contention. But this was different. It was as if Mary's glad news was a costly pearl a field owner had suddenly come upon, or a poor woman's lost coin that had finally been discovered. It was as if her tidings were confirming the purpose of his life, our lives.
"Here, child. Feel his joy. This one will come first."
The Spirit of the Mighty One warmed me. I took my cousin's face in my calloused hands. I could do nothing but sing:
"Beautiful," the Mighty One says,
"you and the child that you carry."
Yet who am I to sing to you?
Your words roused the wildness within,
my son to be born raged with joy.
Faithful Mary. It is very good!
Then Mary spoke:
My heart's cry has been, "Look at me. See me. Watch me."
The Mighty One has granted my wish and look at me now!
They will talk of what He has done for me for generations to come.
Heaven's mercy bathes those who hear and obey.
His strength brings the proud to their knees.
His compassion raises the poor from their knees,
He sets a table before them in the presence of their enemies.
No, the Mighty One has not forgotten His Israel.
His mercies endure forever.
It is as He has promised from the beginning.
He is coming!
We suddenly realized our audience: Zachariah. He was standing there watching, listening, silent. My old priest would later tell me that a riderless horse paused in the distance as we sang and spoke that day. The meaning of this he could not say. Nor can I.
"Come, child. You must stay with me. We've much to talk of. Zachariah will inform your mother. All will be well." And so she did, for three months.
Excerpted from Touching Wonder by John Blase. Copyright © 2009 John Blase. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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