A Christmas Story

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“Joseph. You’re awake – again.”
“Did I disturb you? I’m sorry Mary. I’ll be still. Go back to sleep – you need your rest.”
“Yes Joseph I do. But I also need to know why you’re sleeping so badly. Is something worrying you, something you haven’t told me?”
“No, nothing in particular.”
“Not the journey?”
“A little, perhaps. These godless Romans, telling everyone to go home to be counted. For what? Why can they not just ask where a man was born and be done with it? And your time will be very near. Of course I’m worried. And angry.”
“Yes that is true. All very true. But I know you Joseph bar Jacob. There’s something else and it is not a new thing, is it.”
“Hmmm. Where did you learn to look into people like that? You have such depths. New? No, it is not.”
“Oh Mary, I admit it – I have doubts. They go away and then come back to plague me. I’m afraid of how I will feel when I first look at the babe.”
“But Joseph, the angel. You may doubt me, but an angel of the Lord?”
“The angel was a dream, just a dream. A very powerful and deep dream, a dream unlike any I have dreamt before or since, but a dream for all that. Sometimes we dream about how we want things to be.
“And I don’t doubt you. It is very hard to explain – I know you believe this babe is the child of the Lord. But, well, things happen. I am a plain, practical man. I believe in what I can see, what I can touch, and hew and shape. I… it is all confusion, sometimes I believe, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes both at once, it seems. Help me Mary. Help me to believe. Tell me again how it was.”
Mary shifted in the bed, easing the weight of the child asleep in her womb, wondering how she could help her husband, who had been so good to her. Telling him again how the angel had spoken and how the Holy Spirit had covered her might settle him for a short time, but she wanted him to know in the way she knew. 
But she could not see a way. It seemed he would just have to suffer this, and she had to believe and did believe that the instant he saw little Jesus he and anyone else would know. While Joseph lay there, looking up at the rafters of their little room, she asked the Child within her what she could do. Almost before the question was formed she had the answer. Of course – it was obvious!
She took Joseph’s right hand in both of hers and looked at it in the dim light of the night filtering through the gaps in the shutter. She loved that hand, sometimes as hard as a spade but capable of such gentleness of touch and such fine work with timber, the right hand that could not only use tools but was itself a tool, the palm, the fingers, each part its own unit of measurement in his work. She held it to her cheek and kissed its palm.
Joseph just lay there looking at her, marvelling at her young beauty, still touched with a hint of childhood but with the strength and character of a woman.  As he watched, she put his hand upon her chest, just below her throat. As it lay there he could feel the beating of her heart, slow and steady.
Then she drew his hand down till it was resting on her round, swollen belly. Immediately the child kicked, just once. They smiled at each other. Joseph had forgotten all his troubles now, just marvelling at the thought of his life to come with this magnificent wife the Lord had seen fit to provide, with this child and, please God, many more.
Then Mary drew his hand down further. Joseph froze.
“Mary. No. Not during your time.  I can’t wait, but I’ll have to. There will be plenty of time.”
“No Joseph, not that. If you trust me, close your eyes and let me have your hand. Do you trust me?
“Yes, of course, but…”
“Then do as I say.”
The time of a few breaths passed. All of a sudden, Joseph was up like a sprung trap. One moment he was lying there rigid, eyes closed, the next he was on his knees on the bed staring at her like a man distraught.
“Lord, Lord forgive me! What kind of man am I, to doubt the word of an angel? How can the Lord forgive me? You are still a maiden! It is all true!”
“Yes I am, and it is, and the Lord is merciful. He will surely forgive a practical man his practical need to know. Now can you go to sleep?”
“Sleep? Sleep? How can you talk of sleep? I will wait for dawn and then go to synagogue, offer sacrifice and perform the rites of atonement. But we don’t have enough to give, not for this. Lord, what am I to do?”
“Listen to me Joseph. You will do nothing. You have done nothing wrong.  On the contrary, you have followed the words of the angel, even though you doubted. Who could not doubt? What is important is what you did, and you have done exactly what you should have because you are a righteous man.  We need our little enough store for the journey, and the babe. Don’t you understand? I was chosen, and so were you, by the Lord God himself. And you have followed His commands.”
 Her words seemed to wash over Joseph, leaving him light and clean, and suddenly deeply tired.
He lay down again beside Mary, turned to her, rested his hand lightly on her arm and closed his eyes. As he drifted off, he heard Mary whispering “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices…….”
“Joseph, they are getting closer together. Perhaps, five or six times an hour.  The baby will come soon.”
“We can hear many sounds from the town now – in less than half an hour we will be knocking on an inn gate. Will you last that long?”
“I think so. I don’t know. I wish Elizabeth were here.”
They were ascending a steady rise towards Bethlehem, whose lights they could see a couple of stadia ahead, but the road was poor, lacerated and deeply, dangerously rutted by the unaccustomed traffic. Mary winced each time the donkey put a hoof down heavily on the uneven ground. Joseph’s broad forehead was knitted with worry.
After what seemed an age, they came to the first inn on the outskirts of the town. It was humble affair, standing alone in a small group of houses. Each house had a well-fenced yard with a water trough; these were shepherds’ homes, and in the light of the early-rising moon the flocks could be seen dotted around the broad open expanses which lay all around.
It appeared that the inn had once been and perhaps still was an agriculturalist’s home. The rooms were in a separate wing added to the main building, which was approached by a broad staircase to the first floor; ground level was largely taken up by grain and tool storage and a byre housing a pair of oxen and a milk cow. Joseph’s heart sank as he saw a light behind the shutters of each room; the sound of loud talk filled the air. Someone was beating a drum softly and singing in one of the guest rooms.
“Joseph, help me down please,” called Mary. He ran to her side and she at once wrapped her arms around his neck. He lifted her easily and gently from the donkey’s back; she leaned both her arms on the animal’s back and breathed heavily in and out. The donkey stood still, as firm and steady as if it were something built rather than a free-moving beast. She rested her head on his neck, breathing in the sweet-musty donkey smell.
Joseph ascended the stairs and knocked loudly. He waited. Nothing. He knocked again, louder and longer this time. Soon the door swung open with a loud creak, to reveal a stocky man in his fifties, clad in a particularly dirty and wine-stained coat and an equally grubby round, flat felt hat. Though in all he was hardly a pleasant sight to behold, his eyes twinkled from the depths of his great white beard and crown of hair and when he spoke there was warmth aplenty.
“Peace be with you. But if it’s a room you want, I regret I cannot help you brother. Nor indeed, I fear, can any innkeeper in all Bethlehem. It’s a cold night to be sure but latecomers are having to take shelter where they can.
“I can feed you, we keep a plain but decent table, but then you’d be best heading into the town, where it will be a little warmer at least.”
“Sir, we are out of time. What are we to do?”
“Out of time, what do you mean, out of…” As his eyes took in Mary, leaning over the donkey’s back, her face creased as a contraction came, he understood and fell silent.
“How long, do you think?”
“Very soon. Within the hour, I expect although neither of us knows. It is our first.”
“Well, then we must do what we can. If you are not proud, the warmest place to be is down there in the manger. Three beasts and your donkey will do for a fire I should think. There’s no shortage of straw and I’ll have the boy bring some sack-cloth and we’ll see if we can’t get you some privacy. “
“Sir, you are gentle and good and we thank you with all our hearts. This child will be very special and you will have your reward in times to come.”
“Yes, well aren’t they all when they’re your own and as for reward, I can hardly merit much of that for a spot among the kine.”
“Sir I will be happy to pay as if for a room, for it will serve us as well as. We must hurry…”
“What, am I a Samaritan or Egyptian to charge a weary traveller of David’s people for a heap of straw? Please, spend your money on our good food by all means but that will be all. Now where is that boy? Eli, you scamp,” he shouted at the top of his considerable lungs. “Eli get here double smart, and bring the roll of sacking from the wool store. Eli! Get here, you!”
An hour later, Mary lay with the child on a bed of straw and a light rug. The boy, swaddled in white goats’ wool, gazed into her eyes with full, clear sight and understanding. It had been a quick, almost painless birth; what pain there was now seemed to have happened to someone else. She felt an unearthly joy. She knew now that her life, her real life, had only begun when the angel had spoken to her and she had felt herself covered with the Spirit. She understood as clearly as if the babe had spoken to her that her entire life, now, was to be love – love for the child, then the man, love for Joseph, love for everyone. Even, strange though it seemed to her, the Romans. Literally everyone. She felt another surge of joy, but again, as she had felt before, there was a shadow, too. Something dark in the distance, some terrible sorrow seemed to be way, way out there beyond her vision and reach.
She looked again at her little son and all thoughts simply washed out of her, all was forgotten.
Joseph was at the rough cloth curtain, gazing out.
“Mary, oh Mary, you must come and see this, something wonderful is happening to the whole world. The lights of heaven seem to have been turned up, as if every lamp was newly trimmed. Every star seems like a fire. The moon is huge and unimaginably beautiful. And I keep thinking I can hear music as if the very stars were singing, and yet when I listen harder, there’s nothing. Bring the babe; can you make it to over here?”
He turned to look at them. They were gone, at least as far as he and the world was concerned. They were in another world of their own, gazing at each other. He crossed the couple of paces and sank quietly to the ground beside them. She turned and looked at him, and smiled her beautiful smile.
“Peace be with you – is the Child in there?” A voice, firm, speaking in a foreign accent, was coming from just on the other side of the cloth. Joseph and Mary looked at each other, questioning.
Joseph rose and drew back the cloth. Three strange, exotic looking men, covered with the dust of long travel, stood before him. Some twenty or thirty paces away, clearly visible in the bright light, he saw a group of camels and a horse, attended by servants.
“Yes,” he said. “The Child is here.”

Patricia Cornwell – Scarpetta

I have recently started – and scarcely less recently stopped – reading this book.  Cornwell is revered among thriller writers. Kim Hill, if I recall correctly, is a fan. For starters, I suspected the title: ‘Scar’ and ‘Pet’ juxtaposed like that.  Seemed facile.
By page 13 we have a protagonist talking to a Dr Thomas, gender unrevealed, but clearly a psychiatrist.  The presence of a psychiatrist, particularly so early, worries me because psychiatrists in a thriller are often just a cheap trick, a lazy writers’ mechanism for creating a dilemma for a  character. They also allow the writer to dodge the challenge of revealing a character’s motivation and proclivities through words and actions.

That alone would not have led me to snap the book shut at page 22 with a huff of dissatisfaction. I was just tired of trying to piece together the first three or so chapters by guesswork, which we have to do because they are missing. At least, that is how it reads. We are simply thrown into the action when it is already well under way. Person A is fuming about something Person B has done but we have not a clue what that is or why A is upset about it. And so forth. Eventually, of course, we will catch up, cotton on, find our bearings. What has been achieved? Nothing. And since not one character has, by page 22, captured my sympathy or even piqued my curiosity, the book is a gone coon.
Perhaps Cornwell is suffering by unconscious, unintended comparison with Evelyn Waugh, whose ‘Sword of Honour’ I have just finished. Waugh was a miracle worker. He describes almost nothing, or at least nothing physical. Characters go places, say things to each other, events occur, we meet new people, the books just roll on like life and yet somehow they reveal an extraordinary amount. They teach us, entertain us, and in the end we have the illusion of having almost become Guy Crouchback, we know him so well, pity him, admire him, love him. And is if that wasn’t enough we have experienced the English language having been put through its paces like  champion show-jumper achieving a perfect round.

Will we ever see his like again?

Jungle Eats the Jungle Eaters

Delicious irony du jour: one of the world’s leading environmental criminals has met his end by crashing into the very jungle he was planning to despoil. Yep, Ken Talbot, head of (can you believe it) Sundance Resources (cue projectile vomiting by Robert Redford) and a bunch of his cronies jetting out for a quick gloat over the millions he would make by flattening a few million hectares of the Congo rainforest has instead flattened a rather small patch personally, using the plane he was flying in.
That’s not the really good bit, however. The good bit is, assuming the plane didn’t burn and I’m praying it didn’t, his body and those of his mates will be right now, as I write, providing a feed for the troops of those very monkeys who would have soon been driven from their homes by today’s dinner.
But wait – there’s more… What if those monkeys are poached for their bushmeat and sold into the European bushmeat market?
Then, my friends, the molecules and mitochondria and the fat cells and the protein chains from these robber barons will enter the food chain of some of the very people Talbot and his cronies pushed first into homeless poverty and then into exile. LOL, I say.
Of course it doesn’t stop with monkeys. By night, hordes of vermin, rats, mice, myriad insects take over to carry the work forward. Until, finally, the ants. Millions of them, chewing, snipping away every last molecule of meat until only bone, pure white bone, remains. If we were there, wherever ‘there’ may be, we might perhaps catch a glimpse of white, gleaming in the shaft of light briefly punched by the light plane through the vast unbroken canopy of the rain forest.
Being the contemplative sort, I like to ponder the (up to) half-million dollar watches limply encircling those skeletal radii and ulnae. For the sportsmen like Talbot, perhaps the Ferrari special editor’s edition, going at a snip for yes, one half of one million dollars? (You have to own a Ferrari to buy one, don’t you know?) For the others, perhaps the odd Rolex Aviator certified chronometer, or, slipping ever so slightly down market, a Tag Heuer or two.  Chronometers of course. Goes without saying.
Think of them. Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick…..

PS. Two days later.

Unfortunately for my imagination, they found the plane and retrieved the bodies. Ah well….


I am very worried about the way the discussion, if you can call it that, about abortion has shaped up to be such a disaster for the Church.
The worst aspect of it is that it is being discussed and pronounced upon as if it was entirely sui generis, unrelated to any other matter which Catholics have to confront in their lives.
Think about this: I am a Catholic in modern times. I have a number of big, thorny issues to deal with and I expect and hope for a teaching from the Church which is all of a piece, one part consistent with another and all of it standing in the light of the gospels, the Acts, the letters of Paul and Timothy etc. Because all of those early writings present me with no dilemmas, no contradictions between one part and another.
Now we have abortion. We have contraception. We have pre-marital relations. We have war. We have questions of right livelihood in the teachings of Christ.
The Church’s views on reproductive issues seem to me to be out of sync not only with its other views and its views on the same matters in earlier times, but even with the first, founding principles delineated by Jesus Himself. Leaving me in a rather confused and unhappy state.
Consider war, first. The Church is apparently comfortable with the idea of a just war. History throws up unstoppable, mad mass murderers. Of course we have to make war against them. And in modern days that includes shooting and burning innocent young men the dictators have forced to sign up in their armies. It includes bombing the defenceless inhabitants of cities, including clergy and parishioners inside convents, churches, monasteries. Including (and here’s the irony in the abortion discussion) young pregnant women in cities which get carpet-bombed and fire-bombed.
Innocent life taken. No problem. Welcome to heaven, ye pilots and bomb-aimers, ye strategising air-vice-marshalls, for your cause was just.
Just, eh?
But hang on. Let’s look at that war which is now at a comfortable distance in time: WWII. Your quintessential ‘just war.’ Had to be fought – no question about that.
A truth which was buried by the propaganda of the time is that we should have kept Hitler talking. Given a few more months, so much could have and would have changed. WWII wouldn’t have got so out of control so fast. The declaration of war instantly trapped thousands of Jews who were days and hours away from leaving Europe inside Germany’s, Czechoslovakia’s and Poland’s borders. All but a handful of those thousands who would have escaped perished in the ghettos and concentration camps.
If we put ourselves in the shoes of the early combatants, those who were thrown into war thinking about what they were doing in spiritual terms, how tormented they must have felt, knowing that there was still so much to
do before arriving at the final necessity of war which was now never going to be done.
So much to think about. What about those generals who knew Hitler and were thinking about removing him? Suddenly that too was beyond the reach of the times.
Hell was unleashed on humanity and our mother the Church approved, it seems.
Why? Because inaction in the face of evil is a sin of omission. Fair enough – it is, too.
And yet,what was really behind that reluctance to rush to a moral position against war? There were powerful nations on both sides, nations with long Catholic traditions and massive Catholic assets at stake, gains and losses for the Church which demanded great circumspection.
We’re told that the Pope of the time secretly helped hundreds of Jews.
Secretly. How shameful. How unconscionable.
But of course, the Vatican is inside Rome. He had the Vatican’s independence and neutrality to protect. Obviously this was more important than the lives of thousands of Italian Jews.
We all know perfectly well what Jesus would have done in that situation. Instead, the Church protected its temples.
But hang on. Enough already. Vatican II owned up to all that, acknowledged openly that the Church had lost its way and set about bringing our faith back to something Jesus could be proud of. It did.
So why, now, has it so bent out of shape about abortion?
So little understanding for helpless, unfortunate young women with no prelates and princes of the Church on their side. All they get is the uncompromising lash of instant judgment.
How few there are like Bishop Pat, who has promised 100% help and support for any woman deciding against abortion. So many warped, eccentric looking freaks lined up outside clinics with tacky signs and giant crucifixes, spitting venom. It’s so ugly!

A young woman very close to me fell pregnant to a brute in a violent incident. She is clever, thoughtful. Along with many others, she believes that nature (i.e. genetics) is far more determinative of character than nurture.
She was either going to bear a child who had genes she wanted nothing to do with, a child perhaps who would might grow up to terrorise her as his or her father had, or she was going to race off to the clinic and put an end to this at that point microscopic growth process.
Not a human being. Not a human being at all. A being, by definition, be’s. Has a life of which it is conscious. Feels pain in a way that requires a nervous system, even a rudimentary one.
This collection of cells too small to cover my thumbnail did not have those qualities.
She stopped it growing. I supported her.
I am a Catholic.
Now, she has wrenched herself free from the P habit which had put her in that place, gone through a difficult and triumphant ‘cure’ and is now an amazing, beautiful young woman with her life ahead of her, instead of being an uneducated solo mother with a child she feared and a man lurking around using her as an income source.
She suffers for that abortion. It has left the pain that it should. Heaven forbid we should come to think of even the earliest, quickest termination as morally and psychologically colourless. Of course there is a harm done.
But murder it is simply not.
The truth is we simply cannot have certainty about this. Just as we cannot have certainty about laying sea-mines and depth charges. Or about bombing strategically important cities in a ‘just’ war. Life refuses to be that simple. We have to make choices.
I don’t pretend to certainty but I feel reasonably sure what Jesus would say, to my young friend.
Blessings and grace to you.
Not: Murderess! Bitch! You’ll pay in Hell! Which is precisely what far too many of Our Lord’s self-appointed spokespeople on earth would say and do say, every day.
Remember this: Sts Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both felt elective abortion to be an acceptable option in some situations.
Remember that Mary Magdalene had almost certainly terminated pregnancies as all women of her profession have done through the ages.
So before you start damning people to Hell think about the company they might be keeping.