A Short Story for the Feast of Epiphany

Or…parts of tomorrow’s sermon I could not keep.

 

The vastness of the night sky is nearly blue above them, the trail of stars etched into it, needle holes in the firmament, holding back the waters of the wild.

The magi travel on the open road, all alone, not speaking to one another. The only sound is the sound of their saddles, shifting, and the bells on the straps, but it is lost in the vastness of the dark. One hums to himself, yet the sound is simply absorbed into the spectacular scene above, and they follow a new star, a strange star, toward Jerusalem.

When they arrive, they begin to ask: “Where is the one born king of the Jews?” But no one knows what they’re talking about. Soon their questions begin to disturb the authorities—for who would be born King of the Jews? Herod has his heir, and everyone knows the Caesar won’t let him claim that title—it is the one thing he is desperate for. The rich mock him for his obsession with it, for the way it eats at his soul.

In his insecurity, then, the King calls those who study the scriptures, and asks them to search for prophecy about this child that the magi ask about. Bethlehem, the scribes concur—and he demands to see the Magi.

They would have continued onward otherwise, as they grew impatient, and the star was drifting. That was all they needed, but they went to the King anyway.

“Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

He did not strike them as the kind of king who paid homage.

 


In Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph now live in the house with some of Joseph’s cousins. It has been months since the stable, the strange event of the shepherds and the angels, and she has locked it up in her heart. It returns to her, sometimes, in moments of prayer. Her son is now six, maybe seven months, and he sits up on his own. He shouts, now and then, with the joy of forming the syllables “mama”. She ties him to her back while she does her work, digging up roots in the garden, kneading the flour and yeast into dough.

She does her best to remain quiet, helpful, hopeful. In the night, she and Joseph confer, lying together with the baby between them, and promise each other they will not return to Nazareth. She was grateful to have been called by the census, for his people were beginning to whisper about her, beginning to question Joseph’s judgment—suggest that he lazy for not demanding a pure wife, weak for not having her stoned.

The first thing she notices about them is color. She has seen color like this before, but it is not the same as when she saw these reds, blues, and greens in Jerusalem. There the whole world was colorful. Here the whole world is dusty and busy, shades of white and brown and grey, the colors of the simple. The colors of work.

The astrologers wear colors that do not belong here, and they sing against the plainness of the town.

It was so strange that she barely noticed that it was happening. Boisterous, enormous camels and their riders, jingling with bells and the foreign song of the one with the great smile, appearing in front of the house. Joseph’s cousins go out first, and finally they come in to find her—“They ask for you.”

She goes to the doorway and they bow to her—and the confounded cousins—and ask to enter. She greets them in return, and brings them to where her son sits on the mat, playing with a wooden carving Joseph made him. As soon as they enter, he drops the toy—forgets it entirely—lifting his arms up as if he has known them forever. With a shout he expresses joy, greeting, some kind of familiarity and kindness.

They approach him and kneel.

Mary is again filled with this sense of peace and joyful confusion—her cousins look at her in disbelief. Then, it is over before it began. They leave their gifts, and they disappear by another road.

By the time Joseph wakes from the dream about Egypt, the cousins have already begun to conspire. They have already begun to pick at her dress, her hair, and ask about the gold. They ask for favors, asking how she could help them not gossip about the origin of her son. “It is a gift to him,” she says, but she is lost even still.

In the end, though, when they saw the soldiers coming, it was the same cousins who disguised them, sent them away in haste—protected them from what was coming.

When news reached her later, it was the first time she understood the terrible price they all would pay.

“Are we worth this to you?” She asked that vast, endless night sky.

“Always,” was all she heard.

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