This is the second Christmas story I ever wrote for public consumption in 1990. I presented it to the Riverside Brethren on the Sunday before. I hope the lack of factuality does not bother you too much, since that’s not the point of this little fable of hope for the hopeless.
Miriam set down the tray of dirty bowls and greasy bones she was carrying so she could tuck that always stray strand of hair out of her eyes. But when she caught sight of her dirty hands she didn’t want to touch it, and her apron didn’t have a clean spot left on it after a day of seeing to the needs of the crowd in their busy inn. Quirinius had everyone travelling all over the country to be registered in their home town so he could keep track of them and tax them more effectively. The Romans were very good for business. Her husband’s inn was packed. But her hair was clinging to her wet forehead, and that one strand! She stuck it behind her ear with a sigh.
Across the smoky, crowded room, her burly, loud, husband laughed with a boom and slapped a man’s back. He picked up his glass and raised it to the young girl who was dancing in front of the fire. She had come with her father and brothers to Bethlehem and now she closed her eyes and felt the beat of the tambourines in her hips and the whine of the flute in her arms. The innkeeper’s eyes glowed.
The innkeeper’s wife was beyond being angry. It was just another girl. How many more would there be to take her place? She picked up the tray to move on to the kitchen where she couldn’t see, but then she made the mistake of taking one last look just as the young girl reached for the cup her husband held out. He grabbed her arm and swung her to his lips. The music stopped, the brothers jumped to their feet and the room burst into laughter. The innkeeper could be heard above them all booming and yelling again and again, “I mistook the little morsel for dessert!” And the wine poured again.
Miriam no longer had the urge to rush over and claim her rights. She had heard the joke too many times since the first night, long ago now. Then, she had danced before a younger innkeeper. He seemed handsome then and alive. The inn was new and he seemed rich and rich with love. The innkeeper loved everyone, for a night, at least. Years later he loved everyone but her, it seemed.
What had it been like to dance? She could hardly remember. It seemed like another life when he had taken her out into the field that night when her father was stupid with wine and spoken words she never forgot. “You are more beautiful than Miriam the sister of Moses when she danced before the children in the desert. You are more precious than the myrrh for which you are named.” And he even kissed her, which she never told her mother. Her hand felt the necklace beneath her blouse. Three amber beads he had given her on their wedding day. His own mother had worn them. There was one for him, one for her, and one for God in the middle. But God seemed as far away as the past. And kisses like that one stolen in the moonlight were distant memories.
Now there were so many guests and so much work to do — and not even a child to comfort her and give her worth, just a kitchen to clean up before she could finally go to bed. There was no room in the inn for fond memories or anything else tonight. She picked up her tray and started for the other room.
But as she passed the door, which was already bolted for the night, she heard a knock. Naturally, her husband was too involved with his new-found friends to notice. But she didn’t want to answer. She was too busy and there was not an inch left. The knock came again, louder. “Why do I do these things?” she thought, and drew the bolt.
Before the man even had a chance to speak she said, “People are sleeping on the benches in here tonight. We’re charging two denarii to lay out a mat on the floor.”
“But my wife.”
“You should have brought your wife earlier. There is no room, now.”
“But here is my wife.” And he gestured toward a figure on a donkey in the darkness. Miriam peered out the crack in the door. She almost shut it in his face. But as she stepped out with the lamp and held it up to see more clearly a door seemed to open inside her. What piercing, pitiful, knowing eyes on that young girl, pregnant, on one of the hungrier donkeys she’d seen lately.
“What is your name child?”
“Mary,” she answered.
And yet another memory flooded her thoughts. Her own mother had called her Mary which is just another way to say Miriam. She used to play a game with her when they sat carding wool. “Miriam, always be a Mary, not a marah,” she’d say — marah being the name of the bitter water Israel found in the desert. “Myrrh is for worship and healing, but without hope it is a bitter taste and a dying smell.”
Tonight was a night for myrrh to heal, she decided. Let her husband clean up the bones. Let him beat her if he even noticed she was gone at all. Tonight there was another Miriam on a donkey with a husband who loved her and a baby who needed a place to be born. So she took them to the stable.
She had been right. Her husband did not even notice she was gone. She left most of the mess in the kitchen, telling herself she could face it all better in the morning. Staring at the rafters in their room she heard his drunken stomp on the stairs. When he collapsed on the mat with a snore it seem to squeeze a tear from her eye for all the nights she longed for a tender word, even a small, “Thank you,” maybe even any word at all except, “Get me this,” or “I need this,” or some angry “Why haven’t you?”
“To what have I lost my life?” she cried inside, and she tried to stifle her sobs because she would have to explain to her husband. “What has become of me? Lonely, like my own mother looked before she died. About ready to die from loveless work myself. Just a fat, dirty face who no one knows. My own children, if I ever have any, will grow up just like me with a father like him and a mother like me.” And she winced from the pain of letting herself long. “Oh God. Where are you?” And she laid her hand on that middle amber bead, the only precious thing in her life.
She didn’t know how long she had been asleep before she awoke to shouts out near the animals. She gently slipped off the mat and crept beneath the window covering. There in the brightest moonlight she had ever seen were some men who looked so scruffy they could only be shepherds acting so excited they were either dancing or fighting. But before she could wait to find out, her husband whipped up the shade and screamed into the night, “You idiots. Don’t you know decent people are sleeping?”
“We have seen the baby in your stable,” one shouted back. “The angels have told us about our Savior.”
“More drunk shepherds,” the innkeeper grunted. “They’re worse than wolves. Then he bellowed, “Go back into the fields before I come down there and beat you myself.”
“Come down’.” another shouted. “See for yourself!” And then they hurried off, still looking like they might be dancing.
“Tired as I can be, my head splitting off, and the riffraff wake up my guests,” he grumbled as he stumbled back to bed.
“Go back to sleep,” Miriam said soothingly. But he needed no encouragement. With a grunt and a snore he was gone. But Miriam threw on her shawl and quickly and quietly hurried down the stairs, over the bodies in the dining room and out to the yard.
The night seemed so alive with strange light that she almost forgot to wonder why she had bolted out the door in her night clothes. Everything looked a little different, as if she had never really seen it before. It felt like the look in that young girl’s eyes — deeper than it ought to be. It drew her like the shepherd’s dance — unusual enough to make your heart beat faster, like when you wonder what will be behind the secret door you’re about to open. Out of her husband’s bed in the smelly inn, out in the moonlight in her night clothes, she felt a surge of excitement – and the fear that came with her freedom. The shepherds were right, a baby had been born that night.
Mary and Joseph and Jesus did not return to Nazareth right away. There was no sense travelling with a new born. Even though her husband objected on financial terms, Miriam managed to move them into a little house they owned. She had taken quite an interest in the family. They were a mysterious bunch. Mary so quiet and serenely religious. Joseph a bit nervous and cautious about visitors — and many came, because those shepherds had started some extravagant tales going around about the baby Himself, who was treated like God’s gift to humankind. The inn practically fell apart because Miriam spent a lot of time making sure her guests were all right and making sure she didn’t miss out on anything. The fact is, things happened to Mary and Joseph that never happened to her. Just being around them promised something. It was a welcome change to looking forward to dying in a greasy apron!
Her husband did not like her new interests one bit. On the way out the door one day he caught her arm and dug his heavy fingers into it. “It is bad enough that you have become Marah to me,” he said. She had made the mistake of revealing her mother’s game to him. “But now you will not even keep the inn. You have duties as a wife. You work for me, not your freeloading friends,” And it was no good to fight him when he had made up his mind. Others had crossed him and she saw the results herself. So on that day she kept the inn and he kept an eye on her. She kept herself, too, happy on the outside, but full of longing on the inside. Suddenly the chains on her ankles seemed visible for the first time. The ropes around her heart were so tight she expected they might burst. She made up her mind she would escape that evening.
It wasn’t hard. She just kept filling his cup and he felt well cared for. The less he felt responsible, the more ignorant of her he could be and the better he liked it. Soon his head was on the table and she was flying down the street.
Strange things were happening at the Child’s house. Camels and servants were outside and richly dressed men were entering the door just as she arrived. She was afraid to crowd in so she stood outside the window in the shadows and listened with barely a breath to break the silence. Many things were said by the strange visitors but the last one spoke so clearly she could not mistake his words: “For the King of the Jews I bring myrrh to anoint Him as a king should be. May He be the healer the stars have promised us.”
When she heard “King of the Jews” the blood rushed to her cheeks and the warmth made her dizzy. She put her hand to her heart and there were her amber beads. “What has come upon us?” she wondered. But she knew. It was God. She sat down in the dark and stared into the night as the visitors talked inside, laughed and prayed. “Behind this wall something is happening that is so amazing,” she thought. But here I sit outside again, left out, uninvited. She knew that soon Mary and Joseph would leave with this child and she would face the rest of her days unloved and struggling to keep her desires locked away where they didn’t hurt so bad.
She was the last to leave the house that night. The door was slightly ajar and she meant to pull it softly shut as one last piece of help she could give before her husband locked her away forever. But, instead, she opened it up to get a last look at the Child who was worshiped, who made news all over the countryside, of whom angels were said to sing, whose birth made her leave her bed and risk the wrath of her husband.
Mary was dozing in the firelight. The baby quietly moved in the cradle. Miriam crept up to his side and knelt there. She could have sworn he looked at her, but whether He did or not, something seemed to open up the locked places in her heart. Into her mind flowed such a bitter flood of sorrow that she was ashamed to be near such an innocent child. She knew she had to leave. How dirty she was. How jealous. How unworthy. How afraid to be sneaking in to stare at someone else’s beautiful, special child. She straightened up to leave, “Just one touch little Jesus and I will return where I belong and you will go on to whatever wonderful life you are meant to live.” When she reached out her finger the tiny hand grasped it and hot bitter tears rolled down her cheeks for all the days yet to be that seemed already lost to loneliness.
She woke Mary up with her sniffling. But she did not seem anything but welcoming. “He’s going to save us all, dear Miriam. Don’t cry. Dance. Let your heart dance again.”
Miriam reached around to untie the cord around her neck and without a word placed her gift at the newborn king’s feet: three amber beads, one for her husband, one for her, one for God, but it was really her heart. Because deep within it Mary’s words planted a bit of hope that it was all true. She could dance again.
We are all Miriams in our own way, aren’t we? Locked in our despair or hoping that what we expect will never happen to us. May the Mary in you grow and the Marah disappear. May the Lord touch you in your deepest longing and promise you dancing. And may He receive that precious hope from you. Let it go. Lay the treasure of your heart at His feet and learn to be free.