Oh, it was cold that year.
Gusts of icy wind swept from the north, carrying snow in freezing blasts. We had to break the ice on the water we had drawn the night before. I was glad I worked for a kind mistress who let us eat the leftovers from our guests’ meals, which we reheated on the fire’s embers. Hot food and the shared warmth as we slept huddled together in the straw ensured survival in such weather. The heat from the animals warmed the cave in which we slept and so we were content. Life was hard but we were better off than many in our little town.
It was, perhaps, the coldest night of the year when the man came knocking. It was late and the embers had died down. I was clearing the last of the flagons before braving the cold and running to join the others. I heard the master go to the door. He opened it roughly – not a good sign if he had the drink in him. I heard the murmur of the young man speak although I could not hear his words, and the abrupt reply from my master:
‘It’s too late. My children are in bed; the inn is closed. Go away and find somewhere else!’
Then the voice of my mistress; how strange that she should be there, at the door at that time of night. Ah, she had a way with her, the mistress. She could gentle her man with just a few words. I could not hear what she said but he turned back to the door and called to the young visitor.
‘You can use the empty cave at the back. Don’t disturb the animals – or the servants.’ Then he slammed the door shut and stomped off to his warm bed.
The mistress came into the kitchen and sighed. ‘Take them a light and make sure they have enough straw to sleep on, Anna. And take a couple of animals into their cave for warmth. But be quiet about it. I’ll make it right with the master in the morning.’
I grabbed a lamp and, blowing on my hands, I ran to the cave at the back of the inn. It was very dark and there was nothing there to make it a good place to spend the night for, although it was large, the roof was low. As I went inside, grateful for my light, I could hear the impatient stamp of some beast and the murmur of a voice, and I saw for the first time that the young man had a companion as well as a donkey. He was supporting a girl, her face drawn with tiredness and cold. They turned and looked at me in surprise, but then the girl smiled at me in gratitude as I put the lamp on a small rocky ledge. The man helped her down from the donkey and I was surprised to see she was heavily with child.
‘I’ll fetch some straw – to make you comfortable,’ I said and ran to our cave where most of my friends were already asleep.
Daniel was not, though. He was waiting for me, as he always did, to make sure I was safe and settled for the night.
‘Quickly, help me with this straw and come back for some animals. They’re needed in the next cave,’ I whispered to him.
He sensed the urgency in my voice and began to scoop up armfuls of straw. Such was our relationship. We had been friends for so long there was absolute trust between us.
He followed me and helped me spread straw on the cave floor. Once there was enough, we took a docile cow and a couple of sheep into the cave too. Their warm breath would sweeten the air, and their body-warmth would help keep the couple snug. I was sorry I had no blankets or food to give them, but they thanked us for our help and bade us goodnight.
I slept the sleep of the young, dreaming of bright lights in the sky, and wonderful singing in the far distance. I had never had such a dream before and I was reluctant to leave it and wake to start a new day.
Before dawn I stumbled to the water buckets and broke through the thick ice. I splashed my face with the cold water to wake me up – and remembered. How had the young couple fared during the night?
I slipped out of our cave, the first as usual to leave. It was my duty to light the fire so all was warm by the time the mistress came down to start preparing breakfast for the guests. This morning I ran to the other cave first and peered into it. It was still not light but my eyes were accustomed to the gloom. I could see that a manger had been moved and the cow stood over it, contentedly chewing in the habit of cows. But why had they moved the manger? It would be a hard enough morning as it was if the master was feeling sorry for himself, as he so often did. He would not appreciate his stock or his manger being re-arranged. I crept in – not wanting to disturb them but knowing that I had to move the manger back into its place to lessen the storm that would break once the master discovered it had been moved.
As I bent down to grab hold of it, I stopped in amazement. For there, lying on a small, prickly heap of straw, wrapped in swaddling clothes was a tiny baby! A baby! My heart melted and I reached down to touch its cheek. It was soft and downy as only a new born baby’s skin can be. I had seven younger brothers and sisters and so was acquainted with babies.
As I withdrew my hand the baby opened its eyes and looked at me.
I was captivated.
It was as if the child not only focused on my face but looked deep into my soul and knew all about me. I don’t know how I knew this – I just sensed that it was true. It was as if – as if I was – deeply loved. I could not look away, but gazed at this baby and realized that there was love flowing between us.
‘His name is Jesus,’ the father said, his voice full of pride.
I jumped away from the crib in fright.
‘Don’t be afraid. All is well.,’ The girl smiled at me and held out her hand.
I grasped it and realised how very tired and weak she was. I wished some of my strength for her, then turned and ran into the inn.
My mistress, when she heard, sent food and blankets for the family, as I knew she would. The master had stopped grumbling and so we were able to slip away from time to time during the day to see how the three of them fared. Once, when I crept in, there were shepherds from the hills outside town, kneeling before the crib. Weathered, toughened men, gazing at the child with adoration in their eyes. Could they have felt his love for them too? A youngster came forward with a lamb and put it in front of them as a gift. I wondered for a moment what they would do with a lamb as they continued their journey. The men spoke of bright stars and angel choirs – and I remembered my dream. Could it really have happened?
Later, one of the girls came back into the kitchen having taken the family some hot food. Her eyes were open wide in astonishment.
‘Kings,’ she gasped ‘Wise men from the east; with camels and servants. They’ve come to see the baby. They spoke of a star …’
The master rushed out, keen to welcome these wealthy visitors, prepared to turn out guests who were not as splendid. But they would not stay. They had come to see the child, they said, and bring him gifts, and now they would be on their way home.
I went to see the family as often as I could whilst they were with us. Each time that little boy looked at me I seemed to love him more – and his love for me never changed. They left after a few days, when the girl was strong enough to travel and they had done their business in town. They gave the lamb to the master to settle their account with him.
I am old now. A whole thirty years or more have passed. Daniel and I live in Jerusalem; our children are grown and gone. But I have never forgotten the brief encounter with that little boy, or our love for one another. Looking back it is as if those moments I spent with the child have coloured my life with love.
Yesterday, the strangest thing happened. I was in the streets of the city when some Roman soldiers passed with a prisoner carrying a cross to his own crucifixion. As I stood aside to watch, the prisoner looked up at me, looked straight into my eyes, and my heart leapt. There it was again – that love – and love flowed out of me. He smiled at me, his eyes shining with gentleness even through his pain. Suddenly I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this man was the baby I had loved so much all those years ago in the cave in Bethlehem.
I followed him and watched to the end. It was his smile that saw me through those awful days until the miracle happened and we realised our lives would never be the same again.