The Lowly Beast of Bethlehem
by Marjorie Haun 12/20/14
…But today my burden is light and sweetly scented. It is Joseph’s wife, Mary, young and gentle, and her words in my ears are like music compared to the clanging and pounding of the builder’s craft. Joseph has put away his tools and seated Mary upon my back, and we have set out for a far city. This is my first journey away from home.
I am Lazaro. My master, Joseph the carpenter, gave me the name “Lazaro” when I was a colt and he was not very old himself. It means “God has helped.” Perhaps he knew that I would need a little help from God each day, to pull the sledges stacked with timbers, and the baskets on my back heavy with carpenter’s tools and nails. But today my burden is light and sweetly scented. It is Joseph’s wife, Mary, young and gentle, and her words in my ears are like music compared to the clanging and pounding of the builder’s craft. Joseph has put away his tools and seated Mary upon my back, and we have set out for a far city. This is my first journey away from home.
From my birth I have lived in Nazareth. When not in Joseph’s service, I like to roll in the dirt and bray at the crows that patrol my feeding trough. I watched as Joseph and his pretty wife, Mary, became friends, and grew in love. Now, with child, she pats my neck and encourages me on while singing a lullaby song. The paths out of Nazareth are worn, but rocky. My feet, unaccustomed to long travel, are already sore as Joseph searches for a grassy place to spend the night. On a verdant hillside we make our camp. It is spring and shepherds lead their flocks to folds beyond the hills, carrying the new lambs across their shoulders, silhouetted against the squinting sun. Mary and Joseph are quiet as he sits next to her under a tree. His hand traces the shape of her round belly before the kisses her good night.
I awake when a lark hops around in the grass close to my muzzle, plucking up grubs. I bray loudly to startle the lark. Joseph cries, “Lazaro, you foolish beast. Be quiet!” But Mary has awoken and she says, behind a soft giggle, “silly donkey.”
How long we must walk, I do not know. How many days, we can only guess. The food and water in my packs has already grown lighter, but Mary, sitting upon my back with one leg folded in front of her large belly feels heavier than the day before. I plod a narrow trail up the rim of a high plateau. I’m not a mountain donkey, I am of the plains and fields and village roads. Joseph grows impatient. “Get along Lazaro! Mary cannot wait forever!” Suddenly, Mary leaps down and tells Joseph, “I will walk. He’s a small donkey, and my legs need to move and the child needs to stretch. He’s growing as impatient as you!” In Mary’s voice there is life–a mastery of enjoyment–rare to one so young as she. Her sweet voice impels me to pick up my pace. My legs ache, my rib cage heaves with great breaths, but up I go, for many hours and many miles.
“Lazaro, stop!” Joseph’s voice jars me to a halt. I look back and see that Mary is kneeling, one hand on her belly, and the other hand cupping her forehead. “Lazaro, come back. Mary can walk no farther.” I hear Mary’s voice, so tired and worried, “My time is growing near.”
Joseph heaves her upon my withers and looks back in the direction of Nazareth. “I shouldn’t have brought you…” Mary stops him with, “Shhhh. I will not be without you, nor will the child.” We trundle to the top of the rim, and there on the other side of the hill is the largest valley I have ever seen. I see smoke from a few distant fires, wadis and copses of trees, but mostly space. There is water, I smell a spring that runs down the hill to the valley below. I snort and bray to tell Joseph that here, there is refreshment for Mary.
We go on. Another day, another sunset. My flanks quiver with the exertion as I kneel down to lie on my side when finally we rest. Joseph leaves Mary to find wood for a fire, and while he is gone, Mary begins to weep. She puts her arms around my neck and buries her face behind my ears and through her stuttering sobs I hear. “Oh Lazaro, you are only a beast, but I cannot let Joseph know how afraid I am. I feel a great burden. My child is coming very soon, and here we are on the plains. Bethlehem is so far away. Oh, donkey, I feel alone with such a great task. What will happen should I fail?” She holds me fast, stroking my neck and weaving her fingers through my short mane. I take her robe in my teeth and tug gently. I want to tell her that my name, Lazaro, will be my promise that God will help us get to Bethlehem. Otherwise, she may forever call me,” foolish beast.” She calms, and wipes her face and straightens her robes when Joseph returns with some sticks for a fire. I nuzzle her belly as she stands, and she laughs gently and goes to Joseph and holds him as if she will never let go.
The morning light reveals Mary’s face, serene but tired. Joseph looks worn, his hands calloused and cracked, and his back stooped. The spring from the hills has grown into a rushing stream. The water is cool and sweet and I crop the watercress and grasses along its edge. Mary washes the sleep from her eyes, and Joseph fills the water bags and drinks his fill before we continue on toward Bethlehem, the early sun warming us. We pass the great city, Jerusalem, and travelers pour onto the roads. Some are young like Joseph and Mary, others old, some walking, some riding asses, and a few Roman soldiers patrol the peopled trails. Two Roman horses, their masters stoic, pass me, they snort, and then they pause. They look at me with disdain, but their eyes soften and heads lower when they look upon Mary. A soldier commands his horse onward. The horse goes on, reluctantly. A walking man, old, lame, his eyes pale with blue clouds of blindness, traveling with his son, nears my side. His face turns to Mary, his sightless eyes lock on her form. The old man feels for my mane and grabs it so that I may guide his way for a while. Mary speaks gently to him. “Sir, are you going to Bethlehem?” “Woman,” he answers sheepishly, “you would speak to me?”
“Of course. We are but travelers on the way to Bethlehem. You may walk with us if you like, but we must make haste for I am with child and my time is nearing.”
The old man grabs my halter and yanks at it to stop me. “Woman,” says he, “the child you carry …He is a king.”
Crazy old man, I think. Mary is the wife of Joseph the carpenter, and the blind old man thinks she is a queen!
But the old man persists. “Woman, God be with you. God bless you. The child in your womb…He…is the chosen one…the Messiah.” Mary does not rebuke the man, though she should because he appears to be drunken or mad. The Messiah! I am a carpenter’s beast, and to think that I could carry the mother of the Messiah on my back. Who would believe such a thing?
“Good sir,” says Mary, “God be with you as well. We must hurry on, apace.”
Another day. The noise of the roads troubles my ears, the strange smells from the travelers fill my nostrils, and the flies make saltlicks of my eyes. Mary is silent. Joseph is silent except when he asks for directions from passing strangers. Dust gets into our eyes and throats, and my body is breaking down with weariness; a weariness I have never before felt.
I hear it before I see it, a viper in the road, sunning itself. But my brain is slow and I react before I think about where I am and the burden on my back. I begin to rear up at the sight of the snake, but then I remember Mary. I stop myself, but my back hoof catches on a rock, and my weight falls up on my fetlock. I stand quickly, but the pain is great. Mary grabs my mane as Joseph runs to her to help her down. I fall heavily on my rump as pain blazes up my leg. No! I think to myself. No!
“Joseph, He is hurt! Did the snake bite him? Will he die?” Joseph calms her, “No, he is not bitten, but he is lamed. He cannot walk.” There is fire in my leg. I bray for the pain, and I bray for the dark thought that I have failed Mary and Joseph, and my promise that God will help us get to Bethlehem has been broken. I am a foolish donkey. I am a broken donkey. If Mary was a queen of the Romans or of the Jews, I would probably be a dead donkey!
Joseph paces back and forth along the trail. He finds the viper and lifts it with a stick, flinging it far off into the brush. Mary looks at him strangely. “I shall not kill the snake, it is not guilty of a thing. And I shall not kill Lazaro, though he is no good to us. I must find a place to stall him, and a family to keep you, Mary, until I can meet you upon my return from Bethlehem.” Her words shake me with their power as she reproves her love. “No! No, you shall not leave me. We shall not leave this beast. There is a promise in his very name, there is a promise in the Name of the Child, Emmanuel, that God will be with us, and God will help us.” Mary speaks through hard tears, “I believe the promise, Joseph. We shall ask God to heal his leg. Lazaro can be made whole. I know it. Please Joseph, pray with me in faith to heal this beast.”
My donkey brain, convulsing in pain and fear, is calmed as Joseph takes Mary’s hand, and they kneel beside me, Joseph’s hand on my tortured leg, their heads bowed in quiet prayer. I stop braying and close my eyes to listen. There are pleas, there are tears, and Mary and Joseph are talking to God as if He is beside them, like a Father come to their aid. Everything is peace and dark. I awake, for I have fallen asleep. There is an aching in my rear leg, but the fire of pain is quenched. Mary gives me a handful of sweet dates, and I am revived.
I stand, and now, acquainted with sorrow and pain myself, I recognize the same in Mary’s eyes. I walk a few steps. Soreness, yes, but I can walk. Can I bear the weight of Mary and the packs? I stop and look back at her, and grunt, “Get on, let’s go.” Joseph once more lifts her upon my back, and my mind is cleared of all thoughts of snakes and pain and stinking travelers and Romans on arrogant steeds, for the lights of Bethlehem begin to appear as we round the crest of the final hill.
The hills outside of Bethlehem are watched by shepherds with many sheep. They fold their sheep, but some stand dumb, looking to the East. Joseph looks to trace their gaze, and a strange smile comes to his face. We hurry on. Mary is quiet in her thoughts, her breaths fewer and deep. Many people are upon the roads. Some have set up camp along the paths. There are makeshift shops, coopers, potters, farmers and others have set up a bazaar for the travelers coming to Bethlehem from all directions. The smells are strange to me, there is filth on the roads, strange languages, and grumblings about “Herod,” and “Caesar,” and the hated “publicans.” When we enter the city the noise crowds upon my donkey ears and both Mary and Joseph gasp at the sight of so many people, many who are strange and dangerous looking. “Where will we stay?” Joseph answers Mary with, “I will try to find an inn. I didn’t expect…I didn’t know there could be so many people in the whole world, let alone Bethlehem.” I bow my head and watch my feet as Joseph leads us on. I must trust him, for my urge to bolt is strong. Dogs nip at my legs, cats, chickens and little children run along the streets. And it seems that every house, every inn, every space within the little town of Bethlehem is filled with travelers. Some of them stop for a moment to gaze, like the Shepherds, at the Eastern sky. Mary cries out, and we move.
Joseph goes to an inn, it is filled. Another, and there is no room, even the stalls along the streets are crowded with people bedding down for the night. We reach the far side of Bethlehem, and there is a last inn. Mary whispers to Joseph,” We must stop. The child is coming whether we have a bed or not.” Joseph steps away from us and knocks hard upon the door. A tired man answers, a cacophony of sound and smell come from behind the open door. “Sir, my wife is with child, and we need a bed. We cannot wait. There is no other place. Please!” The man ponders Joseph, steps out from the door and looks at Mary. His face grows pale. He runs back into inn, then returns with a woman and a boy. “I am Avda, this is my wife Hasna,” a boy of the age of Joseph when I first worked for him joins them, “and my son, Nahor. There is no room in the inn.” Hasna speaks to Mary, “This is no place for you…” Mary moans and a look of stern anger tightens Joseph’s face, but the woman continues, “… The travelers are filthy…” Nahor chirps, “…and stinky!” Joseph looks to the plains outside Bethlehem, “But where shall we go? Our child will be born this night! Can’t you help us? Just one bed, PLEASE?” Hasna, goes to Joseph. “There is a better place for you, a quiet place, without the dirt and noise of the strangers. Nahor, lead the beast to the stall. Avda, get a broom, I will fetch some robes.”
The woman orders us and we obey. On the edge of the city, within its rocky cliffs is fixed a cave filled with straw and feeding boxes for animals. Chickens roost along the mud shelves, a few ewes with new lambs rest in a corner, and an aged ox stares curiously as we enter. Avda sweeps and gathers out the old straw as Joseph helps Mary off my back. Nahor brings fresh straw and piles it up for a bed in the corner, Hasna lays some robes upon the straw and takes Mary by the hand and helps her to lie down. She again commands her husband and son, “Avda, bring water, Nahor, get more straw and meal for the beast, and put it in the manger. This young woman will bear a child within the hour.”
With sweet straw in the manger, I munch happily, save for the cries coming from Mary. The innkeeper’s wife lingers near Mary, and calms Joseph with words of instruction which I do not understand. But Mary’s cries are hard to bear. They are cries of deep distress, her body is erupting in agony, and I ache with her, I mourn the hardship with her. My burdens have been heavy to bear, but the coming forth of Mary’s child is a new and fearsome things to me. I wander out of the cave and stand on the path outside. The sun is a thin strand across the Western plains, but it is light, such as mid-day. Such a long day, I think, in my simple way, and the hours drag on so. But the day is night and a star in the East, so bright that it casts shadows, is defying the sleeping sun! Strange, very strange. I bray at the star, and see that I’m not alone in my wonderment. The people of the village have gathered outside their homes to gaze up. They murmur, some fearfully, some in reverence, and some kneel, whispering something about a “sign.” Mary’s cries grow quiet, and there is soft speaking in the cave, and then, the keening cry of a newborn babe! My master’s son cries and Mary laughs in her soft fashion, thanking God that her hour of extremity is finished. “Praise God! Glory to God!” cries Hasna. Joseph is weeping softly, Mary and the baby wrapped tightly in his arms as he rocks them gently.
Avda and Nehor appear again. They bring food that smells delicious. “Here I have some bread for you Joseph, and a bowl of warm pulse for you, Mary. Eat and be strong,” says Avda. Joseph thanks them and wolfs his bread. “Would that we could do more for this child. Hosanna! Glory to God.” Avda and Nehor try to linger but Hasna urges them back to the inn.
I think to myself, so many strange things; a strange light, a village girl mistaken for a queen, an innkeeper’s wife crying out as if the Messiah himself has appeared! I am weary, and the aches of the day creep into my muscles. I lie down by the opening of the cave. The chickens, sheep, and old ox are strangely quiet, peace and darkness overtake my donkey brain and I sleep.
“He is here! Wake up, wake up! The angel of the Lord has told us, He has been born.” I awake as lads run up and down the village roads, banging on doors and calling to the people. “The King has been born. The star! Come see the star, for it is the sign.” The villagers are restless, for the strange star, brighter far than a full moon, has disturbed their sleep. And now these lads are using their shepherds’ crooks to knock upon doors and call out strange words. The lads begin to gather near me by the cave. They whisper, “Can you see him? Is the mother pretty? Does the baby look like a king?” Patient Mary sits up on her bed of straw and lifts the tiny babe so the shepherd boys may gaze upon him. They are nearly silent, but for some deep sobs and whispers of, “Praise be to God! Hosanna in the highest!”
What of this king? The babe is a carpenter’s son. Mary is an ordinary girl. What is this all about? But as I, Lazaro, ponder upon these strange things in my simple way, I remember the old man upon the road, the blind man who talked of a king carried in Mary’s belly. He talked of a Messiah. Could it be true? A healing prayer that took away my lameness. Is Mary the mother of the promised Messiah? Is Joseph the chosen father of the Son of God? As I think about these things a great warmth enters my heart. The desire to worship God consumes me, and with irresistible joy I step onto the road and bray, in my own language, “Praise God! The chosen Messiah is born! I am His beast! I carried the mother of the King of Kings on my back! Glory to God in the highest. Hosanna to His name.” A cock fluffs his neck feathers and joins me in praise, crowing loudly. My braying wakes the sheep and ox. The chickens begin to cluck, and from the stable cave there arises a joyous noise as the world of animals joins in worship of the Newborn King!
“Lazaro! You mad beast! Quiet now, Mary must rest,” comes Joseph’s voice from the cave. “It’s alright, Joseph. He knows. Lazaro and the other animals know, just as the shepherd boys know. This is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
I hear Mary and Joseph talking and so, hush my braying. The cock settles down and the hens return to their nests. Mary calls to me and I step softly toward the manger from which I had earlier eaten sweet straw. The babe, wrapped in swaddling robes, opens his eyes and makes a strange sound. I snort, and he smiles. “Lazaro, you silly beast,” Mary speaks to me in the same gentle tone which has always pleased my ears, but now with utter certainty and consummate love, “you kept your promise to me and my little family. You carried us here, to Bethlehem. Thank you Lazaro. I know that God chose you, you silly donkey, to help bring His Son into the world. Never again shall you be called ‘foolish beast.” I watch, my head bowed, a sweet peace warming me through, as Mary and the babe fall asleep. Joseph leaves the cave to do the business which brought him to Bethlehem. He rubs my neck vigorously and says, “Lazaro, you have proven yourself. Wait and watch here until I return in a little while. You are a beast with great heart. Now keep Mary and my son safe.” I will, Joseph, I will, I think in my simple donkey way, I will because God is with me.