OF BOYS AND GIFTS
[Originally a Christmas service in our little congregation. Some members read the story, and we sang carols in-between.]
The nightmares started when the first stars appeared in the shop windows. That night Julian once again heard his mother's screams as Dad hit her across the room, and the cracking of bones when Grandpa tried to intervene. Then a loud bang, and Grandpa sank to his knees. Another bang, and Dad looked with surprise at the spreading red spot on his chest before he slowly dropped to the floor. Even in his dreams Julian could feel the fear in his throat as Mom grabbed their clothes and they fled. There was blood everywhere, and broken furniture, and he ran and he ran until he woke up screaming.
That was how they got to Hillbrow. A scary place. People didn't smile, and they looked dangerous. Everything looked dangerous. In every little alley a monster lurked, and the shop windows stared at him like empty eyes.
Mom was gone everyday, walking the streets, trying to find some or other job. And then one day she came home saying that she had found a job, but she had to work at night. She didn't look very happy, and that night he heard her cry. And many nights after that. But at least they had food again, and as time went by they got all sorts of fancy things.
At the beginning Julian didn't leave the flat. He huddled inside, terrified of the strange sounds and noises. Mom told him never to trust strangers, and even the scavenger dogs bared their teeth and growled at him. It was a big, dangerous world, and he was only four years old.
If it wasn't for Sipho, Julian would have died in that flat. But one day Mom was very ill, and he had to go and get her some medicine. On the corner the kids gang was waiting for him. They wanted his money, his sweater and his shoes–and they wanted to mark his face.
That was when Sipho appeared. He wasn't that big, but he knew how to fight. And he walked Julian to the pharmacy and back to the flat.
"You goota be careful", he said in strangled English. "Here they kill you. Bang, bang!"
"I'm scared", said Julian. "But Mom sent me for medicine."
"Okay," said Sipho. "You have to learn the streets. Tomorrow I come. I tell you."
And so they became friends–the thin white boy and the stocky street kid. Ons spoke English, one spoke Sotho, but somehow they understood each other. Julian taught Sipho about TV's and VCR's and computer games, and Sipho told him about the streets: Where to walk, how to walk, where to look, what to do when things went wrong. And how to fight. "You don't fight, you don't live," Sipho said. "But sometimes you run."
Sipho slept in an alley, and begged or stole things to stay alive. At the beginning of their friendship Julian carried off food to Sipho, but eventually Sipho came to be a regular at their flat. But he never slept there.
"The street is my place", he said as he slipped out. "Maybe one day somebody will look for me." He was left on the street as a baby, and survived thanks to the other street kids. "Not all bad", he explained. "Some good hearts, they help me, now I help other". But he kept hoping that somebody would come looking for him one day.
At first Sipho couldn't understand Julian's Christmas nightmares. "It's a good time", he said. "Only time arms are long enough to reach wallets."
But when Julian told his story, Sipho shook his head and said: "Bad. Very bad. Here too, Christmas night you stay off the street. People drink lots, then they kill."
They talked about Christmas, about the happy time when people got hurt and the police worked overtime. They stared at the displays and the gift-wrapped empty boxes next to plastic Christmas trees. They watched as more and nore drunks staggered around in the streets. They hid in alleys while the drug lords mowed down their opposition. And they wondered what it was all about.
It was Sipho's idea to try and find out about Christmas. "Somebody must know", he said to Julian. "We just need to find one very wise man."
And so they set out to find the real Christmas.
Father Christmas wasn't pleased to see the dirty street-sleeper, but he had to please the other kid with the money. After all, he was paid to get money into the shop's jingling tills.
"Christmas?!" he laughed. "Well, it's gift time! What would you boys like to get?"
"No gift," said Sipho. "Why Christmas?"
"What?" Old white-beard snorted. "Don't waste my time! Shoo! Get away!"
Later, in Sipho's hide-away, they theorised about the gift business. "Shop wants money", Sipho concluded.
"But the people buy lots of things," said Julian. "Why?"
"Let's ask the shop", Sipho suggested, but all they got was swear words. And when they asked a loaded shopper, she screamed for help and ran away. And the policeman told Julian to go home and threatened to throw Sipho in jail.
Very dejected they sat in Julian's room and watched a Christmas special on TV. "I don't know", said Sipho. "Maybe it's just one of those things. You know, like it just happens. People are maybe crazy."
"Like my Mom", said Julian. "She asked what I wanted for Christmas and I said a Dad and she left and cried in her room. I mean, why ask if it makes you cry?"
"Big people crazy", Sipho agreed and shrugged his shoulders. Let's gou out. That lady on TV sing bad. Better we walk around."
"Wait!" Julian shouted. "Look there! On TV! They give gifts!"
"Fancy clothes", Sipho observed.
"That's kings, man. Kings always dress funny", Julian tried to explain.
"Hey, look at that! They give gifts for the baby! Wow! I never got gifts when I was a baby." Sipho sounded disgusted.
"Maybe they couldn't find you", Julian offered.
"They didn't come", said Sipho. "Kings don't come here. They live with the rich people."
"I want to meet a king one day." Julian sounded wishful.
"Not here", Sipho said and opened the door. "Come on. Let's go check the streets."
It was almost dark when they got to the park. There were people all around and music filled the air.
"What's going on?" Julian was always afraid of crowds. "Let's go."
"No, man. Let's watch. I saw this last year. Lots of talk and they sing and sometimes they give presents. Maybe we find out about the gifts."
"I don't like all these people", Julian said. "They scare me."
"It's OK", and Sipho took Julian's hand. "We'll sit one side and watch."
So they sat on the side of the crowd, huddled right next to the knotty trunk of a tired city tree. Nobody noticed them. But they watched and they listened. And as the people sang and read, two small boys heard the real Christmas story for the first time. And they loved it.
It was approximately the year 7 B.C. It should have been the year one A.D., but a historian of the Dark Middle Ages made a slight mistake in his calculations. And so it all happened in the year 7 B.C. Or, to be more correct, that was when it started. Our story took place in a faraway country called Israel. From a respected state ruled by one of the greatest kings of all time they degenerated to a servant of the Roman Empire. The Jews didn't like their masters one bit, but they couldn't do anything about it.
Anyway, at that time Caesar Augustus was ruler of the Roman Empire, which included all of the then-known world. And if he said "jump" everybody jumped. Including the Jews. So when he ordered a world census, that was it. And when he commanded that everyone should be registered in their town of birth, the travel agents got ready for BIG business.
But, to be honest, this story really started nine months earlier, in a small town in Israel.
In about the year 8 B.C., in the middle of the year, God sent an angel to the town of Nazareth in a backward Jewish province called Galilee. It was not a political mission to save the Jews from the Romans. Neither was it a humanitarian aid mission to some over-zealous but ill-informed revolutionaries. But it was the greatest mission ever undertook by an angel. In fact, it was so important that no-one else but the archangel Gabriel could be entrusted with it. As every well-informed angel knew, he only left his place before the throne of God by direct order of the Lord Himself. And that only happened when something very important came up.
Gabriel stepped out of eternity into the house of Heli, the son of Matthat. To his great disappointment Heli missed the visit because he was arguing in the marketplace, and his wife was at a tea party. But Gabriel actually came to deliver a message to their daughter Mary. She was young and beautiful, a virgin engaged to a handsome builder called Joseph.
"Greetings", Gabriel said. "You are highly favoured. The Lord is with you."
Well, I don't know about you, but if an angel should appear to me I'll either run or faint. But Mary was made of tougher stuff. According to the official record of the meeting she was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But apparently she waited calmly to hear the rest.
"Do not be afraid, Mary", said Gabriel as he folded his wings and adjusted his halo. "You have found favour with God. You will be pregnant and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the SOn of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
Angels don't fall in love. They don't marry. They don't get into big trouble for sleeping around before marriage. So I don't think Gabriel quite understood what he was saying to Mary, or why she seemed so upset. After all, he was just the messenger boy, even though he had wings and a halo.
"What?" Mary stuttered. "Pregnant? Me? I'm not married, and I've never slept with any man. How will this be?"
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you", Gabriel answered. "And the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the only One to be born will be called the Son of God. And don't doubt. Nothing is impossible for God. Even Elizabeth, your relative, is going to have a child. Yes, people said she was barren, but she is already in her sixth month."
That was enough for Mary. If Elizabeth could have a baby in her old age, why couldn't God somehow place a baby inside her young body.
"I am the Lord's servant", Mary said. "May it be to me as you have said."
Without another word Gabriel returned to the throne of God, leaving behind a scared but determined young girl. And a plan conceived before the world was formed quietly started unfolding.
As soon as she could find an excuse, Mary set off to the hill country of Judah to visit Elizabeth. She simply had to see proof of the angel's words.
She knew all hell was going to break loose as soon as people found out about her "condition". In a sense she was thankful for the Roman occupation of her country. If it weren't for their laws, she wouldn't have had a chance of staying alive in such a "shameful state".
That's why she needed to see Elizabeth: to have something to hold on to during the dark days ahead. But she got a LOT more than she hoped for.
As Mary entered the house, Elizabeth didn't even return her greeting. Instead, she jumped up and exclaimed in a loud voice: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the Child you are carrying. But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
She must have seen the consternation on Mary's face, so she tried to calm down and explain: " The moment you greeted me, this baby in my womb jumped for joy. In fact, he nearly kicked out all my breath! Blessed are you Mary! Blessed are you for believing that God's word to you will be fulfilled!"
That was the last straw. All the doubts suddenly vanished. All the fear was gone. She didn't even feel the warm tears running down her cheeks. Mary lifted her arms to heaven and started to sing.
Nazareth was buzzing with rumours as soon as Mary got back. By this time it was clear that she was pregnant. And everybody knew that old Heli's daughter was not married. Some blamed Joseph. Some said something happened in the hill country of Judea. Some cursed her. Heli wasn't called on to read the Scriptures in the synagogue. His wife was ignored wherever she went.
And nobody knew what to do with this crazy girl. You see, she did not hide in shame. She walked with her head held high, as if in defiance of the whispers. She smiled at the kids playing in the streets. She made a point of greeting the Rabbi and the elders wherever she found them. And she looked as if all the peace of heaven was concentrated in her eyes.
Joseph, her fiancé, went through the fires of hell. To see the woman he love bearing a child that definitely was not his, was too much for him. He cried at night, and he had trouble concentrating on his work. The worst of all was the story she told. Just imagine, an angel in Heli's house. He wasn't exactly the worst sinner in town, but he wasn't that special....
Knowing that Mary had betrayed him hurt more than death itself could ever do. IT was as if he was slowly being strangled. And yet, he loved her. He loved her more than anything else. It tore him apart to hear the remarks directed at her, even though she seemed not to care.
Finally he could take it no more. He had to end the engagement. The most covenient way would have been to bring her to court, to expose her sin, to let the whole community see what kind of woman she was. But Joseph loved Mary too much to do that. He would protect her as far as possible, no matter what the cost. There would be no public humiliation for the woman who stole his heart.
And so Joseph decided to break off the engagement quietly. Of course he knew what the result would be. He knew. The wagging tongues would now turn on him. Hé would be the villain who got Mary into this mess and then refused to accept his responsibilities. People would hate him. They might even try to kill him.
But that would be okay. Mary would be relieved of the terrible burden. And he would leave. Maybe he could go to one of the bigger towns. There was always work for a good artisan, and Roman money didn't worry about your past.
But that night Nazareth was hit by another angelic invasion. Once again it was Gabriel, archangel of God, who stepped into time to shake up Joseph's dreams. Once again he marveled at the frailty of these creatures whom God loved so dearly.
Joseph stirred in his sleep. He was not asleep anymore, but he wasn't awake either. And afterwards he never doubted the reality of that nocturnal visit.
"Joseph, son of David," Gabriel said as he touched the sleeping man. "Do not be afraid to take Mary into your homa as your wife. What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He is the one who will save his people from their sin."
And then the majestic presence was gone.
Early the next morning Joseph was at Mary's house. The bewildered Heli couldn't believe his ears. Another angel in Nazareth! Another cryptic message about this mess! But at least he could now marry off his daughter in some semblance of normality.
It was a small wedding. Most people had some urgent business to attend to. And those who couldn't find a decent excuse simply stayed away. But the few who dared to go remembered the occasion for a long long time. Mary shone with an inner radiance that exposed the emptiness of their tinseltown society, and Joseph moved with the confidence of a king. And not even the temple in Jerusalem had the heavenly atmosphere that prevailed at the feast.
Something extra-ordinary was happening, right under ths stiff noses of Nazareth's holier-than-thou crowd.
And then the time came for Caesar Augustus' famous census. Twenty centuries later archaeologists would confirm the authenticity of the official record, but to Joseph this was not an easy task. Mary was close to giving birth, but she was not going to stay at home.
"I'm your wife", she said. "Where you go, I go. And it is the law".
"Forget the law", Jospeh grunted. "What about you and this Baby?"
"I'm a strong woman", Mary said. "And if the angel spoke the truth about this Baby, a trip to Bethlehem will not bother Him. Besides, I want to see the City of David. Remember, we are both descendants of David".
For Mary, that was it. She was a strong-willed and hard-headed as her forefather David. "And", she said to herself,"Maybe this Baby must be born in Bethlehem". So Joseph finally saddled up the donkey, loaded provisions, and hit the road.
Bethlehem was filled beyond capacity. Every hotel was full. Every spare room was rented out at absolutely ridiculous rates. Food was expensive. And Mary was almost at the point of birth.
Joseph begged and pleaded, but there was simply no available room–not even for a pregnant woman. Finally an irritated landlord sent them to his little animal shelter on the outskirts of Bethlehem. It was smelly, but it was warm, and they were protected from the elements.
And while they were there, the time came for the Baby to be born, and Mary gave birth to her forstborn child, a son–just as the angel had said. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and placed him in a manger. The ox and the donkey didn't mind giving up their food–they knew that, after this night, nothing on earth would ever be the same on planet Earth.
Outside Bethlehem there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy. And not only to you–this is for all the people. Today, in the town of David, a Saviour was born to you. He is the Messiah, the Lord. Go now and see. This will be the sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in clothes and lying in a manger."
Suddenly a great crowd of angels appeared with the herald, praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to men on earth, on whom His favour rest."
When the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another: "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that had happened, which the Lord has told us about."
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the Baby, who was laying in a manger. When they had seen Him, they started telling everybody about this child, and what was said to them. Some laughed, some made jokes about the shepherds, some believed them. But everybody were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
The shepherds returned to their sheep, glorifying and praising God for all the things they have seen and heard, which were justa s they had been told. But Mary treasured up all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
Meanwhile, back in the capital city of Jerusalem, the red carpets were being rolled out with haste. In the middle of all the census activities a camel caravan from Babylon strolled up to King Herod's palace and three wise men dismounted. Protocol was shattered by their unannounced arrival, but soon the whole city was in uproar. These royal visitors did not come for negotitions or other political matters–they were simply asking for directions to find their way in Israel!
"Where is the new-born King of the Jews?" they asked the perplexed King and his counselors. "We have seen his star when it arose, and we have come to worship him."
Herod was stunned. Of course everybody knew about the new star which could even be seen in daylight. But only a Babylonian stargazer could figure out its significance. And here they were, come to pay homage to the new king of the Jews. Herod was furious. But he was also scared.
He called together the city's chief priests and the teachers of the law and asked where the Messiah was to be born.
"In Bethlehem, in Judea", they said. "As it was written by the prophet, so shall it be: 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.' "
Then Herod called the wise men in for a secret meeting and made detailed enquiries about the time of the star's first appearance.
"Go to Bethlehem", he said. "Go and make a careful search for the Child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him."
But as soon as they left the palace, he called in the commanding officer of the Roman garrison. This Child had to die. There could be only one King!
The wise men set off to Bethlehem, their camels plodding through the dust to the beat of a little drummer boy.
And when they found the baby, they knelt down before Him and opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and incense and myrrh.
In a dark park in Hillbrow Sipho grabbed Julian's arm. "See?!" he exclaimed. "Gifts! I told you! Now you'll see!"
When the Preacher-man started talking, Julian and Sipho listened intently.
He told them about the garden of Eden, about the snake, about all the hurt and pain that followed. And then he told the crowd about the love of God that caused God to become a man like us, to build a way for us to get to God. And He did it for free.
"There was no way we could deserve it", he said over and over. "It's a free gift. That's why we give gifts on Christmas: To remember the free gift that we have received. Nobody has to earn a Christmas gift. It's free. And just like that, you cannot earn God's free gift. You just have to take it. And if you want to give something back to Him, why don't you give Him your life?"
Julian and Sipho felt like screaming out: "How can I do that?" They just looked at each other, and then they heard the preacher-man say: "Just ask Jesus to come into your life. Just tell Him you need Him. It's time to receive your Christmas gift." And under a dusty city tree, without the preacher even knowing about it, two small boys bowed their heads and prayed the first prayers of their lives.
Julian looked at Sipho and smiled. "It feels so good inside", he whispered and tried to dry his eyes.
"Yebo", Sipho said and hugged him. "Somebody loves me." And then his body stiffened. "Just sit dead quiet", he whisered to Julian. "Your mother is here."
Preacher-man was still talking, inviting people to come forward for help.
"Look!", Sipho said and pointed. "There she is. Going to the front."
Julian couldn't believe his eyes. His mother was crying, her whole body shaking with sobs. And it's been a very long time since she last cried where people could see it. Something was definitely happening to Mom.
They watched as Julian's mother knelt down with Preacher-man. They cried with her, because they somehow knew: Everything was going to be alright.
And far away they heard angels sing again.
© 2003 Flip van der Merwe. All rights reserved. This story may not be reproduced, stored or distributed, in part or in whole, in any manner whatsoever, without the express written permission of the author, or his legally contracted agent(s). For more information, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.