This December our guest is Charles Martin. Charles is the author of 13 novels, (several of which I have recommended in the past).
When I saw he had applied his novelistic mastery to this tender moment in the Christmas story–on Earth and in Heaven–I was spellbound. This piece was first published on his website and eventually found its way into his newest book. He graciously gave me permission to share it here.
Grab a little piece of quiet, and settle in for this one. You’re going to love it.
The night is cool and turning colder. The air smells of woodsmoke, lamp oil and manure. Quirinius is governing Syria. Caesar Augustus has issued a decree. “Register the world! Take a census.” Under the dominating hand of Rome, men and their families scurry to their birth homes to register. Jerusalem is overflowing. Bethlehem is packed.
It is dark. Past the evening meal. A young man leads a young girl riding a donkey up a small trail and into Bethlehem. He is pensive. Every few seconds, he glances over his shoulder.
The rumors have preceded them. As have the whispers. She’s pregnant but not with his child and to complicate matters, they’re not married. It’s a scandal. According to Jewish law, he should put her out and she should be stoned.
The innkeeper has had a long day. He watches warily. The tired young man asks, “Sir, do you have a room?”
The innkeeper shakes his head. “Full up.”
The young man strains his voice. “You know of…anywhere?”
The innkeeper leans on his broom handle. Half-annoyed. His patience is thin. “Try down there. But…you’re wasting your time.”
The girl winces. The contractions have started. The stain on her dress suggests her water broke. The innkeeper’s wife eyes the barn and whispers. “We can make room.”
Hours later, the couple returns. The young girl is sweating. Doubled over. The young man is frantic. The innkeeper is in bed. Upon hearing the knock, he rises reluctantly and unlocks the door. “Son, I told you…”
“Please sir…”. He proffers to the young woman. “She’s bleeding.”
The innkeeper’s wife appears over his shoulder. She says nothing, which says plenty. The innkeeper trims his wick, and for the first time, looks into the young man’s eyes. The innkeeper gently grabs the reins of the donkey and leads the young woman to the barn where he spreads fresh hay to make a bed while his wife appears with a towel and some rags. She brushes the two men out and helps the girl.
The innkeeper and the young man stand at the door of the stable — little more than a cave carved into the rock wall. The animals seem amused at the ruckus. The innkeeper lights his pipe. The young man shuffles nervously. Behind them, the screams begin. The innkeeper speaks first.“You the two everyone is talking about?”
The young man doesn’t take his eyes off the cave. “Yes sir.”
Another puff. Another cloud. “What happened?”
The young man is not quick to answer. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
The innkeeper laughs, “I don’t know…I was young once. She’s a pretty girl.”
Another scream echoes out of the barn.
“Is the baby yours?”
The young man rubs his hands together. Calloused, muscled. They are the hands of a stone mason. “No, he’s not. I mean, he will be but…I’m not the, well…”
The innkeeper chuckles. “You sure it’s a he?”
The young man nods. “Pretty sure.”
“You intend to marry?”
The young man glances over his shoulder. “Soon as she heals up and…”
Another scream and the the innkeeper changes the subject. “You here to register?”
The young man nods.
“House of David.”
The Innkeeper raises an eyebrow. “Good family.”
The screams have risen to a fever pitch. The young girl is out of her mind. The innkeeper’s wife calls from the stall. “Honey, I need some hot water.”
The innkeeper disappears and leaves the young man alone. Above a star has risen. Abnormally bright.
Elsewhere, in the throne room of heaven, the Son of God rises from His throne and takes off His robe and the golden band about His chest. He unbuckles His sword and leans it in the corner of His throne along with his diadem. Then He removes His priestly and kingly garb where it is folded by attending angels —each having three sets of wings. When finished, He stands naked save a loin cloth. “His hair is white wool, as white as snow, His eyes like a flame of fire, His feet are like fine brass as if refined in a furnace, and His voice is the sound of many waters.” (Rev 1:13-16) Like Niagara. Or the break at Pipeline. Finally, He takes off His crown and places it on the seat. The heavenly host — millions upon millions — bow at His feet, and yet…it is pin-drop quiet.
God the Father rises as His Son crosses the fiery stones. The Father hugs the Son, buries His face on His son’s cheek and kisses Him. The time has come. On earth, the sons of Adam have lost their way. Each gone their own way. Astray. Things are bad. The entire human race has been taken captive and the enemy is torturing them. Not one of them will survive the night. The Son has volunteered for a rescue mission but it’s a prisoner exchange. Their freedom will cost the Son everything.
His life for theirs.
The Father holds His Son’s hands in His and tenderly touches the center of His palm. He knows what’s coming. A tear rolls down the face of the Ancient of Days. The Son thumbs it away. “I’ll miss you.” He glances at the earth below and hell in between. Billions of faces shine across the timeline of history. He knows each by name. They are the “joy set before Him.” (Heb 12:2). He turns to His Father, “I will give them Your Word. And declare to them Your Great Name.” (Jn 17:14, 26). The Son looks with longing at His home. As He turns to leave, He says, “And…we’re going to need more rooms in this house because when I come back…”. He waves His hand across the timeline. “I’m bringing them with me.” The Son — who’s countenance is like the sun shining in all its strength — exits heaven blanketed in the singing of more than 100 million angels and bathed in the tears of The Father. (Rev 1:16)
The Innkeeper returns as the cries of a baby pierce the night air. His lungs are strong. The Word made flesh. (Jn 1:14) The wife clears the mucous and the cries grow louder. The young man exhales a breath he has been holding for a little over nine months. The innkeeper stokes the fire in the corner and hugs the young man, “Come!”
The hay beneath the young woman is a mess. The baby boy has entered the world in much the same way the nation of Israel left Egypt. Through blood and water. The animals look on. The rocks cry out. (Lk 19:40)
The woman places the baby on the mother’s chest and the two lie exhausted. The young woman is exposed and the young man is uncertain as to his role. He has yet to know her. The innkeeper’s wife leads him to the young girl’s side where he cuts the chord and then slides his hand inside hers. His heart is racing. She is exhausted. Sweaty. The afterbirth arrives and the innkeeper’s wife begins cleaning the woman. The young mother stares at the boy and hears the echo of the angel that appeared to her some ten months ago: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” (Lk 1:32-33)
But, it is a bittersweet moment because she knows well the words of both Isaiah and the Psalmist. How the Messiah will suffer. Be cursed. Bruised. Pierced. Despised. Rejected. Oppressed. Afflicted. Cut off from the land of the living. He will bear our griefs. Carry our sorrows. All His bones will be out of joint. His heart will melt like wax. He will give His back to those who will beat Him, pour out His soul unto death, bear the sin of many…and become unrecognizable as as man. (Is 53, Ps 22)
She turns to the man who did not leave her when he had every right. The honorable man who will be her husband. She hands him the boy and speaks His name, “Yeshua Hamashiach.”
The young father holds his son and whispers, “The Son of Righteousness has come with healing in His wings.” (Mal 4:2)
The innkeeper and his wife stand at a distance. They can’t take their eyes off the boy. She whispers, “Every male who opens the womb…shall be called holy to the LORD.” (Lk 2:23) On the air above them there is an echo. Faint, at first, it grows louder. The innkeeper stares at heaven. The star above them is daylight-bright and casts their shadow on the ground. Finally, he can make it out. Voices. Purest he’s ever heard. Singing at the top of their lungs: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Lk 2:14)
The innkeeper knows now. He bows low and speaks loud enough for the young couple to hear. “…The Lord Himself will give you a sign; Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” (Is 7:14).
God with us.
But all are not so inviting. In the dark night air, invisible armies draw invisible battle lines. Forces gather. Battle plans are drawn. Even now, the boy’s life is in danger.
Just over the next hill, beyond earshot, lies another hill. Mt. Moriah. It is an ancient and storied hill. It is the hill where Melchizedek reigned as Priest to God Most High. Where Abraham raised the knife above Isaac. The hill where Ornan the Jebusite built his threshing floor. Where the plague stopped. Where David danced before The Lord and returned the ark. The hill where Solomon built the temple — which towers even now. And in about three decades, forces will gather on this hill to execute this boy.
Daylight breaks the horizon, the innkeeper tends the fire and “the people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, Upon them a light has shined.” (Is 9:2) Mary wraps Jesus tightly in swaddling clothes, lifts Him from the stone trough, and cradles the suckling baby: “who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient…” (Phil 2:6-8).
Joseph kneels and presses his lips to the forehead of his son. He knows the words by heart. Written over 600 years ago, Isaiah is speaking about his Son. About this very moment. About this improbable beginning. About this King who stepped off His throne to become a boy who will grow into a man and walk from this cave to that hill — and down into hell — to ransom you and me.
“For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Charles Martin is the author of 13 novels. His newest book is nonfiction and titled, What If It’s True?: A Storyteller’s Journey with Jesus. In it, “Charles ignites our imaginations as to what the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean to us today.”