A short story by Keith Elford
The little donkey stood in the stall, wisps of hay dropping to the hard, packed earth floor as he tugged it from the crude manger and munched quietly in the darkness. We don’t know if the little donkey had a name, only that he is a real donkey, not just an animal in a storyteller’s imagination. He was Joseph the carpenter in Nazareth’s donkey.
Tomorrow they would start the long 80-mile trek to a little village in the southern hill country of Judea – the place where the great King of Israel, King David, had been born. Why? The Emperor of Rome had ordered another census registration and everyone in this little postage stamp sized state was ordered to return to the city of their birth. This was how the imperial powers kept track of who was eligible for taxation and for military service.
Mary was going too. In fact, she was going to be the rider on the little donkey’s back. Donkeys don’t know a lot about the cares and concerns of their human masters, but this one knew that he must gauge his gait carefully. Something in the way Joseph would hold the rough rope in his strong hand, calloused from hours of work with the hammer, saw, and chisel of his trade, would tell him that he must pick his steps softly.
The truth of the matter was that Mary was going to have a baby. It had been a distressing time for her. She and Joseph were engaged, but they weren’t married. The year-long engagement meant that they were solemnly promised to each other in a covenant that could only be broken by divorce and here she was expecting a baby – just as an angel had told her.
No one understood. Many did not believe that she had remained faithful to Joseph, so she had run away to the refuge of her cousin Elizabeth’s home to hide from the smirks and raised eyebrows of the neighbors and even some of her own relatives.
It had been a tough time for Joseph too. At times he found it hard to concentrate on his work at the bench in his shop. He would find himself daydreaming – lost in deep thought. The hammer’s blows would cease – the chisel still in his hand.
« What would it be like without Mary? »
He really loved her. How could she be with child? Her dark brown eyes so soft, so tender, so honest told him that her words were true. But how could she be pregnant? And how could he make a living in a small town like Nazareth raising someone else’s child?
The night after the day he had made up his mind to quietly break it off with Mary, he had a most unusual dream that would forever change the course of his life.
An angel appeared to him (and he was as real as the finger on the end of your hand) and said, « Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid take Mary home as your wife because the baby growing within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. »
Conceived by the Holy Spirit? We, with Joseph, can hardly imagine how such a thing could happen. But it did. There was no human father; otherwise when Jesus became so famous, this earthly father would have stepped forward to make his claim. Joseph believed the angel and sent for Mary, which brings us back to the next day’s trip.
The sun rose bright and clear. The gentle breeze of the early morning made the dew laden leaves of the trees quiver. A rooster crowed. After Joseph had knotted the rope around the little donkey’s neck, it dutifully followed Joseph to Mary’s door.
They were not the first on the road. Many other early risers were already en route to the villages of their ancestors and it seemed to the little donkey that the travellers walked stooped under burdens. Their steps were heavy, their sad eyes searching, but for who knows what. Donkeys don’t know much about the cares and concerns of their masters.
The trip to Bethlehem passed like a dream in slow motion. Dry dust, noisy chatter and people trudging under invisible heavy loads. What would this census mean? More taxes? An impending war with the barbarians? Sons slaughtered manning the Roman war machines? There was peace in the land – but it was the forced peace of a handcuffed nation. The sons of King David were galling under the yoke of Roman oppression. The days were dark. They felt trapped and restless and hopeless – not a lot unlike a lot of us feel when life corners us and presses in.
What happened that night in the little stable so far as the donkey was concerned was that a baby was born. He stood by disinterestedly – his long lashed eyelids blinking over his soft brown eyes. His pointed ears pricked up when Mary moaned and he watched with a bewildered gaze as the Christ child was nestled in the cradle of hay formed in the manger. Though he looked long and hard, that’s all he saw and heard and understood. You see donkeys don’t understand much about the cares and concerns of their human masters nor do they know what it means for hope to enter a human heart.
But this was no ordinary baby. This was God’s Son entering into a crude stable in Bethlehem, but more than that, into a world that is oppressed with cruelty and greed and selfishness.
The little donkey craned his neck and stared when the midnight visitors came barging in. Those peasant shepherds had seen angels out on the hills!! The little donkey didn’t know what an angel was – but he was sure that these men had seen them. These were honest, hardworking, no-nonsense-types who wouldn’t say that they saw something, if they didn’t!! They saw angels!! And the angels announced to them that a Savior had been born in Bethlehem — the Christ, the promised Messiah, the Lord!
As I said before, donkeys don’t know what angels or cares and concerns are, but this donkey noticed that those who came to gaze upon the Christ child weren’t bent over any more when they left. The invisible burdens were gone.
And if you look around at Christmas, you’ll notice the same mysterious difference. Though we still live in a world where lots of things aren’t right, those who have taken in the wonder of God coming to earth, have hope in their hearts and a song in their souls.
“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
(“O Little Town of Bethlehem” – 3rd verse)