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Ancient Testaments: 'Before His Manger,' Chapter 53, part 1: The Manger

In Chapter 52, Joseph and Mary made their way south toward Bethlehem, but not with their original traveling companions — who included their unpleasant neighbor, Ehud. Instead of the traditional route through the Jordan River Valley, which was longer and hotter, they chose to go through Samaria, in company with a Samarian Jew named Setti. As they approached Jerusalem, they could see the temple. Mary was determined to stop there, even though her strength was beginning to wane. In Chapter 53, they arrive at Bethlehem, and the one so long-awaited is born at last. Our story will conclude as we join other worshippers and witnesses before his manger.Chapter 53: The MangerWith the fatigue of a week's travel wearing upon Mary's body and mind, Joseph was anxious to get her to a comfortable inn at Bethlehem. But Mary wanted more than a brief visit to the temple. They had arrived just before noon, and now, an hour later, there was more she urgently desired to do.When Joseph noticed her walking unsteadily, he persuaded her to sit down in the Court of the Gentiles. It seemed to him that she was a bit pale and that her eyelids were drooping a little. And when she momentarily adjusted her head cover, Joseph noticed her hand had a slight tremble to it.She looked up with a weak smile and said: "Joseph, I know we must not take risks. But we must do this." She took a moment to scan the great square that surrounded the inner courts of the temple. She studied the throngs of loud, excited people. Most of those who had just entered the area walked, not with their eyes upon the stone floor, nor even upon the people around them, but upon the majestic building that Jews considered to be the center of the world. She turned again to her husband. "All is well, Joseph," she said. "I will be stronger after I rest a bit.""Then rest," he said, "and we will finish our visit to this holy place." He placed a hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. "And let us remember that we still have five miles to go before the day is spent."Several minutes passed as Mary closed her eyes and tried to rest. While she did so, Joseph took time to watch the swelling Passover crowds. Many men dressed in white robes could be seen quickly pressing their way through the mass of visitors. Some of these, having just arrived, were hurrying to report to their priesthood supervisors and to be checked for ceremonial readiness before beginning their duties. Others, having just completed their shifts, were hurrying to some place of residence that they might eat and rest before returning. So it would be, night and day, during the Passover week. As many as 7,000 of them would be officiating at one time during the busiest hours.Joseph's eyes looked up to the Mount of Olives on the east. It stood higher than the Temple Mount. Pilgrims topping that mountain from its east slope would suddenly find themselves looking down upon this scene, with the vast numbers of fellow Jews from places near and far, drawn to the massive and breath-taking building, with its snowy-white marble walls and gilded battlements around the top gleaming in the sun. He could discern those crowds on the Mount of Olives, stopping to take in this sight, frozen in wonder, and then streaming down its western slope to find their way onto the temple grounds.His attention was drawn again to those around him, especially the ordinance workers. By and large, they beheld the sacred rites of the temple without understanding the meaning God had planted there. He felt again, as he often had before, a gratitude for his father, Jacob, and their friend, Rabbi Shayah. These were in the small minority of Jews who really wished to see the quiet, sobering truths revealed in the Law of Moses and its ceremonies. Of course, it all pointed to the great Friend of Israel and of mankind, the Messiah. If they studied and lived the Law as God intended, it would prepare them for his personal presence.And now, whether these thousands of officiators and hundreds of thousands of practicing Jews were ready, their Messiah was about to arrive. Joseph marveled that he and his havruta — his fellow student of the things of God, his Mary — were apprised of these things while so many others had little idea that such a moment was at hand.Now Joseph heard two statements, one right after the other.The first came from Mary, who announced: "I am ready. I must see the great altar, and a sacrifice." Joseph turned to see how she was doing. She was standing there, looking much revived. It occurred to Joseph that God was blessing her to get more out of a little rest than was naturally possible.Then came another voice, from just behind them, "I think we can arrange that."They turned and found standing before them a tall and impressive elderly man, who himself was wearing the priestly robes. To Joseph, the man did not seem much like the many others, distracted and uncommunicative, rushing along with their schedules, busy and wrapped up in the demands and importance of their offices. This man seemed to be focused upon Joseph and Mary as if they were the only ones in sight. He seemed to be a peaceful island in the swirl of humanity.Joseph was just about to ask what he had meant by those words, when Mary stepped forward and embraced him. "Zacharias," she said, weeping softly.Zacharias patted her shoulder and looked upon Joseph with a wide smile. At length Mary stepped back and stood next to her husband. "Zacharias," she said, beaming, "this is Joseph, my blessed husband. And Joseph, this is God's high priest, the father of him who will be a voice in the wilderness, a voice..." she said with trembling lip, pausing to get control of her words, "a voice to introduce the Chosen One to the chosen people."The two men nodded with mutual respect, each one aware of the remarkable role the other had in the historic drama God was unfolding for mankind.

Sometimes we have an urgent problem that cannot be fixed. Joseph had learned that when this happens, it is best to pick another problem and go to work on it instead. When he awoke on Sunday morning he still was not sure how to replenish their dwindling supply of food. No doubt, whoever owned the animals kept in the outside chamber of the grotto would soon be tending to them. When that happened, Joseph could look into some way of purchasing food. But until then, while Mary still rested, there was something else he could do.On the previous day, she had asked what sort of bed they could make ready for the child. Joseph had found a solution.Among the tools and implements stored in the cavern, there was an old hammer and two chisels. At first he thought of hollowing out a place on the floor of the chamber they had claimed as their bedroom. But far better would be something that could be moved. There was more than one old stone basin in these chambers, mangers that had held water, grain or fodder for the animals that occupied this cavern-stable, perhaps for centuries.So, Joseph lugged one of these old mangers into the outside chamber. With the light of morning on his work — and the curious eyes of Yetsiv and a milk cow, two sheep, a hen and her chicks to watch him — he began a special cleaning project. He would re-dress the stone, shaping it to its new purpose, making the cupped area wider, smoothing the ragged places and, as if removing the shell from a cooked egg, chipping away a layer of oldness, making it new, fresh and clean.Now and then, he checked on Mary. She even left her deep straw bed and came out to watch him a while at midday, but as the sun was hidden behind a stern vault of chalky-grey clouds overhead, and a stiff, cool wind was blowing across the bluff, he thought it best to escort her to the inner chamber again. He urged her to eat the last of the bread and cheese and they agreed that she should return to her warm bed.Then he returned to the front chamber to continue shaping the little stone bed. His back faced the cave opening, with the muted, overcast sky shining upon the stone. So he did not at first see the arrival of a man behind him. He did see the soft shadow fall across his work, and at the same time heard the words, "Who are you?"Read "Before His Manger," Chapter 53, part 2