The young husband watched his wife with worried eyes. When she caught him looking at her, she always smiled, but he could see the lines of discomfort and exhaustion etched on her face, and his concern continued to grow.
It had been an incredibly difficult journey. Because of her condition, they had needed to make frequent stops and to travel slowly. Now it was nearly dark, and they were among the last to enter the tiny town of Bethlehem. He knew it was going to be nearly impossible to find suitable lodging for them, especially with limited means.
He thought that they might do better if they tried one of the private homes that were taking in boarders. It would be more quiet and perhaps a bit less expensive.
So he walked up to the first door with a sign on it, and knocked. The owner answered quickly, interrupted his question to tell him that they were full and quickly shut the door. He turned around sadly, and caught the briefest glimpse of disappointment in her eyes. It was gone in an instant, replaced with an encouraging smile, but it had been there.
They continued down the street, and when they came to the second door, he straightened his shoulders and knocked. It was like an encore performance. This time, before he turned around to her, he carefully arranged his face to hide his growing anxiety. When he looked at her, he saw that she had done the same thing for him.
He tried every house he could find, with no luck. It became harder to keep knocking in the face of such continuing failure, but he didn’t give up. And every time he looked at her, expecting and dreading to see that look of disappointment again, he found only a consistently caring and supporting smile.
Finally, they came to the town’s inn. They could hear the noise from its courtyard a block away. They couldn’t afford a private room, even if one was available, and he hated the thought of having her spend the night in that raucous courtyard, surrounded by Roman soldiers and caravan workers.
The innkeeper responded to his knock and peered past him to see her sitting on the mule’s back. Her condition was obvious. The innkeeper wanted nothing to do with such a possibility in the courtyard of his establishment. He was polite, but blunt.
"There is no room," he said.
The husband turned away, not having any idea of what he should do next. He was supposed to be taking care of her, and at this moment he didn’t know how.
Then a quiet voice at his elbow said, "I know a place. Follow me."
He turned to see a small woman with intense eyes. She didn’t wait for a response, but turned and started walking up the road leading behind the inn toward the outskirts of the town. The husband took the halter of the mule, and followed.
They came to a small stable. It wasn’t much, but it was out of the night wind. The straw was clean, and the place was well kept. The woman helped him get his wife into a soft bed of straw, and water the mule.
When it became obvious that the baby was coming, the woman disappeared. He thought it would have been nice for his wife if she had stayed to help, but was grateful for what she had done. The baby came quickly, and he found an empty manger to lay the Child in. He was just putting fresh straw into it, when the woman returned with a swaddling blanket.
She handed it to his wife, saying, "I made this for my own child, but it was never used. I would be honored to give it to you."
His wife accepted the gift with a gentle smile and a hug, and the women wrapped the Baby who would save the world in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger. Just as they got Him settled, He opened His eyes and smiled.
And the awful emptiness in the woman’s heart was filled. She wiped away sudden tears, and gave the Baby and His mother a kiss. Then the innkeeper’s wife returned to her noisy inn.
It was the centurion’s last duty station. In less than a month, he could return to Rome and his family. On this Friday, he had been assigned to the execution detail. It was an unpleasant duty, but at least it was quiet.
So he was shocked at the mob coming up the hill, screaming and shouting at a Man who looked like he would not live to receive his final punishment. The centurion quickly had his men form a circle around the execution site, blocking the approach of the crowd once the man had arrived.
The soldiers performed their duty, and the cross was raised. As the centurion looked up into the face of the Man on the cross something seemed familiar. He quickly turned away.
Then a woman approached, supported by a young fellow and two female companions. The young one asked the guards if the group might approach the cross. The centurion heard the guard refuse, saying that there was no room. He turned at the words, and the woman’s eyes found his.
And suddenly he was three decades younger, standing in a raucous inn in a town called Bethlehem. He had been a new recruit then, and had been so excited to go to a distant land to conduct the Emperor’s census. The excitement had been short-lived. The tiny village had no entertainment, so the soldiers had taken over the courtyard of the inn, drinking and carousing into the wee hours every night. He had never been a big drinker, so he usually sat by the wall until it got quiet enough to sleep.
He had been sitting there when he noticed the innkeeper open the door that night. A young man stood in the doorway, gesturing back into the street. The soldier looked where the man pointed, and saw a woman sitting on the back of a donkey. Her condition was unmistakable.
The innkeeper took one glance at the woman, paled, and firmly told the man that there was no room for him or his wife. The soldier saw the wife’s eyes as the innkeeper began to close the door. He had expected to see anger and fear and disappointment in those eyes, but instead they smiled at her husband with love and trust and serenity.
He couldn’t believe those eyes.
And now, he began to worry about the woman herself. He told himself that it was none of his concern, but he couldn’t let it go. So, after arguing with himself for a few minutes, he stood and slipped out the door of the inn. He began walking the streets, starting at one end of the village and working his way toward the other.
That was when he saw the group of shepherds. They all seemed to be looking up and listening to something. The soldier quietly fell in behind them.
They walked to the outskirts of the town, and began entering a stable.
The soldier moved toward the door, and stopped. There was the woman. She was just laying a newborn Child into a manger.
The soldier didn’t know how she knew that he was there but she turned and smiled at him, inviting him with her eyes. And suddenly he, a tough new centurion, was afraid. He knew that if he entered that stable, he would never be the same. He began to back away silently.
Her eyes sadly watched him leave.
He had never seen her again – until now. She was standing in front of his guard, trying to reach the Man on the Cross.
The old centurion ordered the guard to let the woman and her companions into the circle. He followed her to the foot of the cross, standing quietly just behind her.
She turned and gazed at him with the same invitation in her eyes, the invitation that he had rejected over 30 years before. This time he accepted it, and looked fully into the face of the Man on the cross – her Son.
It had taken him over 30 years, but he realized that he had finally entered the stable where Love was born.
"Truly, this is the son of God," he said.
In the Stable
He was so excited that he knew that he would not sleep a single wink that night. It was to be his first night with his own flock.
He had come of age just two weeks ago, and his father had given him his very own staff. He had watched his dad work on the staff for months, shaping and smoothing the wood so it would fit his hand perfectly. He had been so proud when his parents presented it to him, along with 5 sheep of his very own to watch.
They were older ewes, separated from his family’s flock. His father had chosen them because they were plump and docile, so they would be easy to tend.
He had worked hard to learn to use his staff to guide his sheep along the paths and into the fields each day. And this afternoon his father had called him aside and told him that he was ready to take his little flock into the fields that night and watch over them without any help.
He had already selected the place where he would go. It was on a small hill behind the town. There was a stable there, but it was seldom used and no one came there at night. It would be quiet and safe.
When evening came, his mother gave him a supper to take with him on his vigil, and he carefully led his sheep around the village and onto the hill. The night was lovely, and the stars seemed especially bright.
His sheep – how he loved the sound of that – settled down, and he ate his meal. Then, he too slowly drifted off to sleep.
It was totally dark when something startled him into wakefulness. He looked around and couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
His sheep were behaving like lambs in a field full of clover. They were leaping and playing, full of joy. He wasn’t sure what to do. Old ewes never leap and play, they have to be pushed into walking quickly. And they definitely don’t look joyful.
But right now his sheep did.
He jumped to his feet to find his father, and noticed that the stable below him wasn’t empty.
A woman was leaving, and a soldier was coming up the hill toward its front door. The woman was smiling through eyes full of tears. The soldier, however, wasn’t smiling. He looked almost afraid. And he had stopped walking. He was just standing there, like a statue, staring into the stable.
The boy wondered what could possibly frighten a Roman soldier.
He had been about to go down to that stable, but now he thought he would wait a bit to see if anything else happened. So he sat down quietly beside a bush on the hillside and continued his watch. His sheep were still playing behind him.
Suddenly, he saw his father and the other shepherds. They passed the soldier and entered the stable. He thought he heard singing.
If his father was in that stable, he was going too. So he grabbed his staff and strode down the hill. The soldier was leaving, and his face now looked more sad than afraid. The boy tried to smile at him, but he didn’t think the man even noticed that he was there.
And then he saw what was in that stable, and he forgot about everything else. A woman welcomed him with her eyes, and a Child stared at him from the depths of a manger.
As the boy approached the Baby, he thought the tiny face smiled at him. He found himself smiling back, and he walked right up to the Little One.
"I only own this staff," he said, "but I would like to give it to your Baby as a present."
The Child’s father took the staff and held it so the Infant’s fingers could reach it. They curled around the wood tightly.
"Thank you," he said. "It is right that His first gift should be a shepherd’s staff. But He would like you to keep it for Him. Can you do that?"
"I can", said the boy, "But how will I know when to give it back to Him?"
"He will find you," said the Child’s father, handing the staff back.
And Thomas took his staff, and joined the rest of the shepherds.