Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Behold the Handmaid"

The following narrative was a blessing given to me by my Heavenly Father as inspiration for a youth lesson I was asked to give several years ago. The historical aspects have been taken largely from Luke 1-2, as well as "Jesus the Christ" by James E. Talmage. Many of you may have read this before, and I invite you to share it with anyone you feel might benefit from it's message.


In the small village of Nazareth there resided two very special young people. One was a handsome young man in his early twenties, a carpenter, named Joseph. Joseph considered himself to be a very fortunate man, for he had been betrothed to his cousin’s beautiful daughter, Mary.

One particular night Mary had been sleeping when a most remarkable thing happened - an angel appeared. He spoke unto her, saying,

“Hail, thou that art highly favored, The Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” (Luke 1:28-33)

Mary, who was only in her late teens, readily accepted the words of the angel, and had only this to ask: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34)

“And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’” (Luke 1:35)

Before Mary could take all this in the angel also spoke of her cousin Elizabeth, who had been barren and was well past child bearing years, but was now blessed with a baby.

“For with God nothing shall be impossible.” (Luke 1:36)

Mary answered this, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy Word.” (Luke 1:38)

The angel Gabriel departed, leaving Mary alone in her tiny room to ponder the incredible news. Can you imagine her thoughts at this time? All her life she’d been told of the coming of the Messiah and knew of the circumstances by which He would come. She knew herself to be of the proper lineage. Perhaps she had dreamed, not once, but many times that it could be a blessing bestowed upon her, all the while never truly believing it would actually happen.

Yet it was happening, and she had a heavy responsibility laid on her shoulders. How long did she live with the secret before taking leave of Joseph and her family, departing for another city where her cousin, Elizabeth, lived? What hopes lay in her heart, that this woman, who she may not have known very well at all, would understand, could comprehend what had happened to her? The angel Gabriel had told Mary Elizabeth was also pregnant after having been barren. Could they find comfort with each other, a comfort that only womanhood could provide?

While in her sixth month Elizabeth received a surprise. Her young cousin, Mary had come to visit. At Mary’s salutation something amazing happened – Elizabeth felt the quickening of the spirit of the baby growing inside her belly as it moved in response to the voice of the Messiah’s mother. Did Elizabeth shout out her knowledge right away unable to repress the joy and wonder at this remarkable news? Or did she invite her weary cousin inside, giving her refreshment, before saying,

“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43)

The relief Mary must have felt at those words. She had traveled all this way at the angel’s bidding, not knowing what would wait for her there. The words must have poured out of her mouth as she said,

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; as he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

Mary stayed with Elizabeth and Zacharias for three months before heading back home. Try to imagine what the journey must have been like. Did her parents already know she was pregnant? If not, what would they do? And what could she possibly say to Joseph? Knowing how hurt he’d be – would he even give her a chance to explain? A betrothal was just as binding as the marriage covenant, and the betrayal of such severe.

Mary would have been about six months along by now, her condition obvious. Can you see Joseph, excited beyond words that Mary had returned after being gone for so many months? He must have missed her terribly. What do you think happened when he walked in to greet her? Did he welcome Mary immediately, not noticing her swollen belly? Or as she stood to greet him was he stunned, incapable of moving? Did they quarrel – Mary frantic to make him understand and Joseph so hurt he couldn’t hear what she was saying? Did Joseph turn and run away, unable to face what he thought to be unspeakable betrayal?

I would suppose neither of them slept very well that night, both unsure of what to do next. One can only hope Mary knew that as the mother of the Christ-child nothing could be done to hurt her. No, the truest wound was in knowing that at any time Joseph, the man she was counting on to provide both love and protection, would most likely put her aside.

Jewish law provided for the annulment of a betrothal in one of two ways – by a public trial and judgment, or by private agreement. Joseph was a good, kind man and truly loved Mary. He did not want her to face public humiliation and embarrassment. He had decided to annul the betrothal in as much privacy as possible, though the thought of doing it rested heavily on his heart.

That was when the angel of the Lord appeared to him, though to Joseph the visitation came in the form of a dream. The angel said,

“Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.’” (Matthew 1:20-23)

The elation Joseph must have felt upon waking! The woman he loved was carrying the Messiah. Was he ashamed of his first reaction? Did he rush right over to her house, hoping she could forgive him? Did he sit there in awe of the woman in front of him, and wonder at the child and mother placed under his protection? Was he scared of not living up to his Lord’s expectations as the guardian of this most heavenly son?

As the angel had directed, Joseph quickly set about making the marriage happen as swiftly as possible in order to give Mary the protection of his name, for it was obvious to all she was soon to deliver her child.

The birth of Mary’s baby was fast approaching, and at this time a decree went out from Rome ordering a taxing of all the people. It was a way to take a census upon which the basis of the taxation would be determined among the different peoples. Had the census been taken by the usual Roman method each person would have been counted at the town in which they currently lived. The Jewish custom, for which the Roman law had respect, required registration at the cities or towns claimed as their families respective ancestral homes.

This is the reason Joseph had to leave for Bethlehem, with Mary choosing to go with him. Certainly the journey was long and hard, but no harder than the people of their day were used to.

Camping out was a familiar thing for travelers, a way of life for all. Because of this many shelters had been built along the way where weary travelers could lay out to rest. These buildings, known as 'khans,' offered the protection of walls and a roof, as well as water. Some of the larger ones even had an enclosed court for the beasts with enough water for all. These khans were very much a blessing for those who could get them.

Joseph and Mary found their way into Bethlehem and discovered the inns were all full. They were fortunate when one innkeeper told them of a khan nearby, one large enough to keep their animals in. On that night, in early springtime, Mary gave birth to her son, Jesus the Christ, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger.

I can’t help but think of the thoughts of both Joseph and Mary as they beheld the tiny baby. Could they even comprehend the mission that lay before Him, of how they would have to watch their son surpass them in every respect, only to watch as His life was cut down far too soon? Or were their only thoughts of what a blessing this little one was to them, their hearts full of love and peace, grateful He was healthy and safe in their arms?

At this time of the year it was common to find shepherds watching over their flocks grazing in the hills just outside Bethlehem. Unto certain of these shepherds came the first proclamation that the Savior had been born.

“And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good 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.” (Luke 2:10-12)

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14) How incredible a visitation for a few lowly shepherds. And even more of a blessing was the gift of a sign, which they had not asked for, but was given freely to guide them in their search.

These men didn’t wait, but went quickly, not just believing, but knowing what was told to them was true. “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” (Luke 2:15) And they found the baby, lying in a manger, just as the angel had said. Then they went out and testified of what they had seen.

As was required by Jewish law, when the baby of Mary was eight days old He was circumcised and given the earthly name of Jesus. Mary remained in retirement for forty days following the birth of her son, as directed by Mosaic Law. Only then did both Mary and Joseph present their child, as was custom for the first-born male of every family, preferably in the temple when possible. Jesus had been born within five or six miles from Jerusalem where he was taken to be redeemed before the Lord.

It is not known how long after the presentation of Jesus in the temple passed (a few days, weeks, or months?) when Herod, the appointed king of Judah, heard reports of a Child of Prophecy, one destined to be King of the Jews, had been born. Into Jerusalem came strange men from afar asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)

Herod cried for his chief priests and scribes, demanding to know where, according to the prophets, this Christ was to have been born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him. “For thus it is written by the prophet, and thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” (Matthew 2:5-6)

This news worried and angered Herod. He was not willing to give his control and power away, and certainly not to any Jewish baby. A plan formed in his devious mind and secretly he sent for the magi, the wise men, and asked them to go to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.” (Matthew 2:8)

Not knowing Herod’s reputation they left Jerusalem, rejoicing when the new star was once again visible.

They found Mary, Joseph and the baby, whom they recognized as the Christ-child. They “fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they had presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)

The gifts were significant to the magi. In the oriental lands these men were high in rank. It was the custom of their people to offer gifts to those even higher in rank, whether of a spiritual or a worldly nature. Remember, they did not offer gifts to Herod. Yet now they willingly, humbly knelt at the feet of a baby, to acknowledge him as a superior being.

The magi left, with every intention of keeping their promise to Herod, when in a dream they were warned that they should not return to him, and so instead they left for their own country another way.

Herod was furious when he realized the magi were not returning. After estimating how old he thought the child could be, Herod ruthlessly, maliciously sent out the order to slaughter all the children, not only in Bethlehem but in all the coasts thereof, from the age of two years old and under.

Heavenly Father protected His Son and sent an angel to Joseph, saying,

“Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” (Matthew 2:20)
Herod never found the Christ-child, and when he died an angel went to Joseph to tell him it was safe to go home.

At the time of the Savior’s birth, Israel was ruled by alien monarchs. The rights of the royal Davidic family went unrecognized; and the ruler of the Jews was an appointee of Rome.
Had Judah been a free and independent nation, ruled by her rightful sovereign, Joseph the carpenter would have been her crowned king, with the virgin Mary his queen; and his lawful successor to the throne would have been Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Merry Christmas?

Bit by bit the sounds of raucous laughter penetrated my exhausted mind as I lay in bed, face down into the pillow. I pulled up my covers in a desperate attempt to block the unwelcome merriment, aware that something was very wrong as the effort caused every muscle to ache.

Wait – merriment. Two things exploded into my brain, one so quickly following the other they could have been the same thought. First, it was Christmas Day! Second, I was sick.

I don’t recall just how long I’d stayed in bed lamenting my health when my younger brother came bursting into my room insisting I “hurry up” since our parents wouldn’t let him open presents unless I presented myself. Groaning, I dragged my sad, sluggish form out of bed, all the while trying to ignore its’ vast accusations that this was cruel and unusual punishment.

I crept into the kitchen where my fever soaked mind attempted to find some form of medicine to fight the onslaught of evil attacking my insides. It’s possible I stood at the sink for a good five hours just holding the bottle filled with little, white, fever-reducing pills, my desperate attempts to get the childproof cap off continually unsuccessful. At last my dear mother came in, undoubtedly wondering what was taking me so long.

I gave her my health update and mentioned the unwillingness of the mean medicine to come out of the bottle. She took the unruly item from my weakened hand and popped the lid right off.

I’m convinced I loosened it for her.

My body screamed to be put back to bed, but the living room really was so much closer. I lugged myself to the couch, missed, and ended up on the floor.

Of course I totally meant to do that.

Lucky for me I had placed myself (subconsciously?) right in front of my presents. It took a day or two but I managed to open them all. After conveying the proper thanks I curled into a ball on the floor and at last let loose the moan that had been trying to escape all morning long. I was blissfully forced back to bed where I slept a good portion of the day away.

Upon waking I discovered life might actually be worth living. It took a little effort, but I managed to emerge from my room feeling less like the zombie I no doubt resembled. I forced down a small glass of bitter water (why does everything taste funny when you have a fever?), returned to the living room and rediscovered my presents.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in a fog. Mom wouldn’t let me help make Christmas dinner (shocking, I know). Dad wouldn’t let me play with his new ‘toys’ (can’t imagine why). My two brothers created chaos everywhere they went with Mother scurrying behind in an attempt to keep things relatively clean. I probably would have joined my siblings had my head not felt like someone had filled it with helium and tied it to my body with a string so it wouldn’t float away.

I dozed here and there, missing most of "It’s a Wonderful Life" and "A Muppet Christmas Carol." The sudden unwelcome ringing of the doorbell echoed inside my hollow head. Our neighbors had arrived for dinner, choosing to brave the vile germs I emitted into the air with every breath.

We all sat down to the beautifully set table and said grace. That’s when it happened. The rolls (which I normally inhale) were passed under my nose causing a strange reaction to my insides. I sprang from the table – moving faster than I had all day.

For once that day something good happened: I reached the bathroom in time.

After a pointless vow to never eat again, I gave up and finally let my poor body crawl back into the very bed I should never have left in the first place. I was vaguely aware of a hand caressing my face, the covers being tucked in tight, a soft kiss, a whispered “Merry Christmas,” and the door closing. As I drifted off a sigh escaped my lips.

Okay so it could have been a snore.


One of my more miserable Christmas memories :)

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Gift for Andy

Around this time last year my next door neighbor died. For several weeks beforehand I'd been frantically trying to put together an afgan for him, as he was desperately sick. Unfortunately I didn't get the gift done in time. He died shortly after Christmas. When I did finally finish the afghan I took it to his widow on the same day as their wedding anniversary.

Out of this experience I was able to write a short story, one which I'd like to share. Things didn't happen exactly this way, but therein lies the magic of creating something beautiful. At the end are (badly taken) pictures of the finished product.

A Gift for Andy

The teal strand of supple yarn twisted between my fingers. Just one last row. It felt like a fool’s errand. He was already dead. Already dead. But I couldn’t stop. It had to be finished.

Double crochet, chain one, double crochet five times. By the tenth row I’d memorized the pattern. By the fifteenth my thoughts no longer dwelled on my task. Now the blue metalic hook flew on its’ own, a forgotten extension of my hand.

Each approaching row haunted me. Each completed row taunted me. Too late, they said. Too late for seventy-nine teal and plum colored rows.

It had started as a work of love. My sweet neighbor had been ill for some time. I recall the morning I awoke to an ambulance in front of his house. That time he almost hadn’t come home.

Double crochet, chain three and double crochet in the same stitch. His wife was devastated, as she should be. I sometimes heard her crying through the screen door as I worked in my yard. She needed someone, I knew that. But we hardly knew one another and I didn’t know what to say. I never knew what to say when it came to death.

Five more double crochets, end. I took out my tiny lime green-handled scissors and snipped. It was done. But it was too late.

I sat in back at the church. It was my first Catholic funeral. I didn’t understand most of what went on, just stood when they stood and sat when they sat. The priest kept referring to my friend as Andrew. Only he wasn’t Andrew. He was Andy. My friend Andy.

We began talking over the bushes that separated our yards over a year ago. He was always so warm and friendly, like a favorite uncle. I could always make him laugh. The sound of it made my heart light. I was never a fan of moustaches, but loved the way the ends of his would turn up every time he smiled.

Fold it once, twice, and three times. He was only fifty-five, though the ravages of alcohol made him look sixty. “Don’t you go down the same path,” he’d tell his grandsons. “This is what will happen.” He was always straight like that, telling it like it is. I always respected his honesty.

About two months ago he started to get really sick, you could see it in his yellowed eyes. He needed a liver transplant. The doctors all said even if one had come he’d never have made it through the surgery. That’s when I started the blanket. I wanted to make something special for my friend. He needed to know that I cared. But life got in the way. I had to put the blanket aside, just for a short while. By the time I got back to it a whole month had passed. I never thought my fingers wouldn’t go fast enough.

My feet barely made a noise as I passed through the bushes. She was crying again, but I couldn’t leave. Not yet. That other-world-like feeling is too strong. I needed to finish my task. Taking a deep breath, I sent up a silent prayer and knocked on the door.

“Evelyn, it’s me.”

She sniffled once or twice before opening the door, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen.

“I’m so sorry to bother you, but I wanted to bring you something.”

“Come in, please,” she said, ever the lady.

Evelyn sat down on the couch, so I perched next to her before handing over my little package.

The words choked in my throat. I blinked back many tears before I could talk.

“I started making this for Andy, back when he got so sick. I wanted him to have something I made, but I didn’t get it done fast enough.”

As she unwrapped the tissue paper I watched her eyes flood with tears once more.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, “I didn’t get it done in time. But I thought maybe you could have it instead.”

She took the blanket and wrapped it around her, brushing her face against the silky stitches.

“It’s so soft." Her gray eyes, magnified by tears, focused on me. “I was just praying…I’ve been feeling so alone since he died. I needed this.”

She reached out and took me in a tight embrace. Perhaps it wasn’t too late. Perhaps I’d been able to give Andy my gift after all.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Walking on Temple Square

Those who frequent my "Musings" blog might recognize this picture. I took it after the family visited the Church Museum. I loved that they were both barefoot.