For this Christmas season, I once again post my short story ‘The Gift’. Christmas is a time we like to look back at old favorites—this is mine. Each time posted, this story has been warmly received. It is the only story that I have written which appeared unexpectedly as ‘a whole’ in my mind.
It was written as a ‘new myth’. It had always bothered me that although there are shepherds, angels, and wise men at the stable, nowhere is there any help for Mary at the birth. Surely Joseph prayed for help; in my myth, his prayer was answered and Jesus’ first miracle was for one speaking ‘the Word’ for the first time.
In the time before the star shone over Bethlehem, there lived a shepherd and his wife who had six sons. The husband was very proud to have such a family of sons, but the wife longed for a daughter. After the fourth boy, she had expressed that wish to her husband. He scolded her, saying it was sons, not daughters that every good Hebrew should pray for. Although she dearly loved and cared for each son, she never stopped yearning for a daughter. After the birth of her sixth boy her heart became heavy, realizing she was passing out of her childbearing years and was not to realize her hope. But to their surprise, she conceived again, and a year later, she gave birth to a girl! She immediately declared the child to be God’s blessing, and requested of her husband that the baby be named Johanna, Hebrew for ‘gift of God’. They so named her.
The baby was very beautiful, strong and healthy—except for a twisted foot. Faithfully during the child’s infancy, her mother massaged and molded the foot, which improved from the care, but it was never to be fully cured. Throughout her life, Johanna was to walk with a limp.
The husband—being a good Jew—went frequently to the temple. As his fellow worshipers became aware of the child’s deformity, some would shake their heads and say this was punishment for his sins. When he repeated this to his wife—who usually made no retort to his chidings—she scolded him: “Do not question God! His ways are not our ways . . . this child is a gift; God has plans for her.” The husband just shook his head and walked away.
Johanna had a loving nature and sweet disposition, but she did not speak. At first they thought nothing of it—with six lively and boisterous brothers, there was always commotion to which she was alert, so they simply thought her quiet. One day a physician said her tongue cleaved to her jaw and she would never speak.
“—A curse of God for sure!” said the people.
As she grew, the girl learned household tasks as befits a Hebrew woman, but she also had a great love of the sheep of her father’s flock and took delight in shepherding them in nearby fields that were not hard to walk to. Later, as she matured, Johanna took on the task of bedding them at night when they were stabled . . . and she gently soothed the delivering ewes at lambing time. Several times she saved both ewe and lamb in a difficult labor. Always she was kind and gentle. The knowledge of her skill spread through the village and at lambing time all welcomed her.
As the years went on, each of the brothers in turn took wives . . . but no marriage could be arranged for Johanna. Only the mean or stupid would accept so flawed a woman for wife, and her parents would not agree to such a match.
As her parents grew old, the daughter cared first for her father, then later her mother thru their aged infirmities, always with kindness and a loving disposition. Her mother never ceased saying Johanna was God’s gift and blessing.
After the deaths of her parents, Johanna went to live with and assist the elderly devout long-widowed Anna of the tribe of Asher, who spent much time in the temple praying. In addition to the duties of Anna’s house, Johanna continued to watch over the stables and tend the lambing of the village.
One December evening, on her rounds of the stables, Johanna came upon a man sitting dejectedly with his head in his hands—at her approach the man leapt to his feet saying, “You are the answer to my prayers . . . Can you help me? I am Joseph; my wife Mary is about to give birth . . .” Johanna gave no response. “I am a carpenter and do not have knowledge of such things. We came for the census. I could find no lodgings or midwife for her, but we were given shelter in this stable . . . her time has come. Now she is napping between her labor pains—and I feel so helpless. I called upon the Lord God to send help . . . and here you are. Will you help us?”
Johanna nodded. Joseph soon realized she could not speak, but he did not question God. He thanked God for sending this kind young woman as he handed her the supplies they had carried with them for this need. She moved with self-assurance and, though not a midwife, all the years of tending the ewes gave her the needed inner confidence. Her kindness, warmth and gentleness soothed both the travelers.
At the moment of birth, gently she received the newborn into her hands, cleared the mucus, patted his back to encourage his first breaths of air, wiped him with the linens, and tucked him into Mary’s arms.
With gratefulness, Mary received the baby and said, “He is to be called, Jesus.” At that moment the infant’s tiny fingers curled around Johanna’s index finger—she opened her lips and whispered “Welcome, Jesus” . . .