by Heather White
In such a small stable as Samuel’s was, any change would be noticed and muttered over by the animals. When their Master Joseph changed their feed to dry straw during last season’s hot spell instead of the succulent oats they were accustomed to, the sheep had a lot to say, crunching around the pale stalks and talking poorly of their master. When the boy who mucked their sleeping stalls did not come for several days, the goats bleated about the unacceptable situation, wondering why the master did not come and care for them himself. When their corn portions were reduced through the long months of the cold season, the chickens clucked their disapproval of their favorite sweet’s substitute, picking at the hard grain with spiteful pecks.
But Samuel never complained. He loved his master. Master Joseph had a gentle manner and soft voice. Samuel heard other masters speak roughly to their animals, beating them with sticks and kicking them when they would not obey, but never his master.
One hot and dusty day, while Samuel was hauling a load of timber with his master from outside the city walls, he noticed a change in his master’s demeanor. He was always quiet, for certain, but today he seemed distracted and troubled. They stopped in the scraggly shade of an olive tree, and his master kindly let Samuel drink from a skein of water and rest for a moment.
Master Joseph sat on a rock and looked off in the distance, scratching his chin and combing the dark hair growing on his face.
Softly he uttered in a choked up voice, “Oh, my sweet Mary, what shall we do?” Then he lowered his head into his hands and began to weep.
Samuel was very concerned. He had never seen his master in such a state. He moved closer to him, nudging his shoulder with his soft brown nose, and snorted a few times to show his concern.
He touched Samuel on the white spot over his nose, a gesture which Samuel loved, then pulled himself up.
“Come, Samuel,” his master said. “Let us return home.”
Samuel worried over his master all that evening. He consulted with the sheep over what could be troubling their master so, but they could only speak of their recently shorn coats, complaining loudly over their humiliation. He approached the goats with his concern, but they could not be torn away from their dinner, and kept nudging each other out of the way for better access to the generous portion of grain his master had left for them. He considered asking the chickens of their thoughts, but changed his mind, as they never gave Samuel more than a testy cluck, sometimes even pecking at his ankles, until he would kick at them gently with his hoof, sending them squawking and scurrying around the stable.
The next morning was the start to an even more curious day. His master came to the stable earlier than usual, laying grain and straw in the feeding manger in a rushed manner, tripping over the chickens and laughing all the while.
Master Joseph paused for a moment by Samuel’s side and stroked his nose.
“This day brings good news, my friend,” he spoke softly next to Samuel’s long ear. “I have seen a messenger from God. You will meet your new lady soon, and she will bring with her a Master of all.” He then gave a final pat on Samuel’s neck and left the stable.
Samuel did not know what he was speaking of. What new master was he referring to? He did not want any other master than Master Joseph, whom he loved.
Samuel met his new lady later that day. She was small and young, with soft eyes and an equally soft voice. Samuel loved her instantly.
“You and I shall be fast friends,” she murmured in his ear, as she stroked his neck and his nose. Samuel snorted in happy agreement.
Samuel worked very hard for Master Joseph over the next several months. They made more trips outside the city walls for timber, and his master spent a lot of time in his shop next to the stable. Master Joseph worked long days with the wood that Samuel would carry in for him, building furniture and tools. Samuel had never seen him work so much. He stayed late every evening until the new lady would come carrying a jug of water in her hands.
“Come and rest, Joseph,” the new lady would say. “It is not good to work as hard as you do. You must take care of yourself.”
“But I must be able to care for you and the child,” Master Joseph would say.
The new lady would touch her growing belly and smile. “We shall be fine,” she would say. “The Lord will provide. Now come and eat with us. Your family will not wait long for you.”
Samuel watched as, over the months, his new lady’s belly grew and grew, and she began to move slower and slower. Sometimes she would take him to fetch water with her, as it was becoming more difficult for her to manage the task on her own. As they walked, she would hum softly to herself and rub small circles over her tummy. Samuel loved to hear her sing, so he would snort his approval, causing her to laugh and pat him on the white spot over his nose, just as Master Joseph did.
One day Master Joseph came to the stable with his arms full of burlap sacks and bundles. After laying a woolen blanket over Samuel, he began to drape the bundles across his back. They were going on a journey.
Master Joseph helped the new lady onto Samuel’s back, and led them out into the street to join a large group of people also travelling. Some were the master’s family, and he recognized the boy who mucked the animals’ stalls. They would all be travelling together.
The first few days were difficult. It had been raining, so the road was muddy and rough. There were a lot of hills, and the road would wind around some, and go up and over others. Samuel had to pay close attention to where he was walking, so that he would not step into a hole or trip on a stone. He did not dare stumble, as he carried his lady on his back. Although she never complained, Samuel could feel how miserable she was during this journey. Even so, every once in a while she would rub Samuel’s neck and whisper encouraging words, especially when he was struggling up a wet, steep slope. Master Joseph stayed close by their side, often speaking with the new lady, asking how she was doing.
At night they camped along the road. Master Joseph would set up a small shelter, draped with heavy camel’s hair mats, and the new lady would pull out dried loaves of bread, a skein of fragrant oil, and a satchel of crushed herbs. They would eat quietly, too exhausted to speak much, while Samuel grazed on whatever he found on the side of the road. The next morning they would rise early, eat some more bread, and start again on the road.
The initial group of travelers which they left with had long since moved on ahead of them. The master let Samuel keep at a slow pace, trying to ease the discomfort of his lady. But they still did not travel alone. There were many on the road with them, going in both directions. Eventually everyone would pass them by, however.
After several wet days of travel, the road finally left the hills and dropped down into a dry valley which followed along a river. At first Samuel thought the situation was preferable to the muddy sludge he had just left behind, but he began to change his mind as his back became drenched in sweat and his nostrils filled with the dust kicked up by other travelers.
They stopped frequently by the river to collect water and rest. His lady would dip her feet into the cool water and sigh, rubbing her swollen belly.
Although the days were warm, the evenings were still quite cool. Samuel would stand close to the tent and hear his master and lady’s voices murmuring inside. He would not hear their voices for long, however, as they would soon drop off to sleep.
On the first night in the valley, long after the voices in the tent were hushed in sleep, Samuel lay on the packed, dry earth and looked up at the moon. It seemed that there were a million stars in the dark sky. It made Samuel feel very small as he saw the vast expanse of heavens.
Suddenly he heard a rustling in the brush close to their camp. The tent was situated next to a thicket of trees and shrubs, which were very dark. The soft light from the moon did not illuminate much beyond the edge of their camp, as the thicket was so dense.
The hairs on the back of Samuel’s neck stood on end as he heard more rustling and a low growl. He had heard other pack animals speak of the dangerous beasts in the forest along this stretch of road. He could not imagine what was crouching just beyond the edge of the thicket, ready to pounce.
A soft murmuring came from the tent. It was his new lady, speaking in her sleep. He heard the shifting of mats and blankets as she repositioned herself, trying to get comfortable on the hard ground.
Whatever was in that thicket, Samuel knew that he could not let it near their camp and his lady. He stood up and started pawing at the ground, snorting and shaking his head from side to side. He paced back and forth, pawing at the earth again and again, and snorting in short bursts. Finally he stopped and stood, staring into the darkness of the woods.
All was silent.
Samuel stood guard all night. There were no more rustles coming from the thicket, but he stayed attentive anyway, until the pale blue light of morning crept up from the horizon and his master awoke.
Samuel trudged slower than usual the next day. He was exhausted from his sleepless night, and would nod off to sleep at every stop his master made. Master Joseph never became angry, however, or try to prod Samuel on faster. He seemed to know that a slower pace was needed. He walked closely to his lady, steadying her on Samuel’s back with one arm when she was feeling less stable. Although she would never complain, a soft gasp or groan would come from her every once in a while, and Samuel knew that he was not the only one suffering.
They spent one more night in the valley close to the river. Samuel tried to stay on guard again, but he was so tired that soon he drifted into sleep.
This time Samuel was awoken by men’s voices approaching on the road. The moon light was bright, making the dirt on the road shine white. All he could see of the men was dark shadows moving along the glowing path. There was a subtle stirring close by, and Samuel noticed his master rising from the ground next to his tent, where he had evidently been sitting, keeping watch. Master Joseph leaned heavily on his walking stick, a beautifully carved piece of wood which he had crafted with his own hands.
As the men approached, they saw Master Joseph standing there, armed with his heavy stick, watching as they passed. They were heavily cloaked, revealing only a small portion of their faces. One of the men raised his hand in greeting. “Good evening, brother,” he said.
“Good evening,” was Master Joseph’s response. His voice did not have the same gentle tone which Samuel was accustomed to. It was more of a voice of warning. Samuel shifted his weight, and the men looked in his direction and at the dark tent.
The three men looked at each other, evidently weighing their options. Finally the same man spoke again. “Might you have a bit of bread to share this evening with three of your brethren?”
Master Joseph stood for another few moments before nodding his head. He took a small satchel from the ground and threw it in a slow arch to the man on the road, who caught it with a smirk.
“Thank you, brother,” the man sneered, after peering inside the satchel at its contents, and the three of them proceeded on down the road.
Samuel watched their dark shadows become smaller and smaller on the glowing white road.
A soft voice came from inside the tent. “Is everything alright, Joseph?” his lady asked. “I thought I heard voices.”
“It was just some travelers, like ourselves, Mary,” Joseph said gently. “Try to get some rest. We will be leaving the river tomorrow, and there will be many hills.”
Samuel groaned within himself. Although he was happy to leave this flat valley, with its dust and heat, he was not looking forward to reaching the hills again.
Samuel was right to dread the coming day. The road became rough and rocky, with switch backs to the right and left, as they tried to climb a steep incline. Luckily he was very agile and, even with his lady on his back, was able to keep his footing stable. His master strapped several of the bundles onto his own back, easing Samuel’s burden as he tried to get to the top of the hill. Of course, once he was to the top of one hill, there was another standing even taller in front of him.
The road became more congested with travelers as the day wore on. They were approaching Jerusalem, a large city where his master had taken him many times before. By that evening they had reached the city gates, entering into the city as the sun began to set below the horizon.
That night Samuel slept in a warm stable close to an inn that his master and lady stopped at near the edge of town. Even though it was very busy, with people and animals walking every which way, it was the first time that he was able to relax a bit since leaving his own stable. For one evening, at least, he could eat fresh oats, drink clean water from a barrel that the inn keeper’s son filled for him, and lay in some warm straw.
He worried about his lady, though. As the innkeeper’s son had taken him away, he had looked over his shoulder to see Master Joseph with his arm around his lady. She was leaning heavily on him and her face looked pale. Some fresh food and a bed would do her good as well.
Master Joseph came for Samuel early the next day. Their journey was almost complete, but they had another solid day of travel before they would make it to their final destination.
After a good breakfast and plenty of water, his master loaded Samuel’s back with their travel gear and some fresh supplies. He then helped his lady onto his back once again.
Upon leaving Jerusalem, the road remained rocky and pitted. It was used by many travelers, coming and going from the city, and there were large ruts in the road made by so many feet, hooves, and carts passing over it. The little party made their way over many sloping hills, with the terrain becoming increasingly more rocky. Samuel had never been on this road before. The road cut right into the side of a mountain, so there was a steep ledge on one side which he had to keep clear of. He could feel his lady tightening her grasp on his bridle as they made their way around every bend. The drop off was steep and intimidating. Samuel could see the city which they had left far below.
After many hours of climbing, one hoof in front of the other, Samuel was relieved to find the road starting to level out. Instead of scrappy brush and rocks, he could now see lush trees and smell the fragrant foliage. The air felt clearer, no longer muddled with dust and noise. Master Joseph led them to a circle of rocks at the side of the road to take a rest. When he reached for his lady to help her down, she cried out in pain.
“Joseph, I do not think that we have much time. It has started already,” his lady said, as he gently eased her down to a low, flat rock. She was gripping her belly, her face pale and shining.
“We have to get to Bethlehem, Mary,” Master Joseph said, crouching down next to her, his hands placed on her own. “We are too far from Jerusalem now, and we need someone to help.”
His lady bowed her head and nodded, still holding her middle.
“Yes, we must get to Bethlehem,” she said softly.
Master Joseph gave his lady some fresh bread and water. She sipped at the water, but was unable to eat. He then helped her onto Samuel’s back again and they continued along their journey.
They stopped several times that afternoon to give his lady a rest. Samuel tried to walk smooth and steady, to ease her discomfort, but she would still periodically grip his bridle and mane and let out a gasp. They trudged on until evening.
It was already dark when they finally reached the city limits. They were just passing by a silvery expanse of pasture land nestled in next to the mountain, when Samuel could see the yellow glow of the city in the distance.
“Look, Mary! We are nearly there!” Master Joseph called out.
Their relief was short-lived, however, as they found the streets of the city bustling with commotion. There were road-weary travelers with bundles on their backs, street vendors still selling their wares of fresh food and oils, pack animals and goats trailing after their masters, and children chasing chickens across the road. As they passed each building, hoping to find a place to stay for the night, the sounds of people laughing and talking, animals braying, and children crying emanated from the windows and doors. Everything was full.
Where were they to stay?
As Master Joseph approached the last building on the street, with the same noise and busyness flooding from within, Samuel’s heart sank. His master knocked on the door. A harried looking man, with a portly middle and balding head answered at his knock. He immediately started shaking his head when Master Joseph inquired about a place to stay.
“We are already piled to the rafters as it is,” the inn keeper huffed. “I am sorry, but you cannot stay here.”
“But, sir, my wife…” Master Joseph began, and just then his lady let out an involuntary wail, clutching at Samuel’s neck.
The inn keeper led the small party to the stable behind his inn. It was tucked into the rock of the mountain, and sat next to another dozen or so stables. There were about ten pack animals milling around the stalls, fighting to eat from a single manger of straw, and several chickens were bobbing around their hooves, looking for spare pieces of grain. It appeared that even the inn keeper’s stable was full.
“I am sorry, but this is all I can offer,” he apologized, as he hung a lantern on a hook secured in the center beam. “I will send out my wife with some hot water and clean cloths.”
Master Joseph reached for the man’s shoulder as he was turning to leave.
“Thank you, brother,” he said. The inn keeper ducked his head, looking embarrassed, and left.
After Master Joseph assisted his lady down from Samuel’s back, he immediately started clearing a place for her to rest. He moved the animals from one of the stalls and carried in fresh straw from outside, then covered it with his coarse camel-hair mats and finally some soft woolen blankets. He eased his lady onto the bed and knelt down next to her, speaking to her in soft, comforting tones.
Samuel felt it was time to give them some privacy. The other animals would poke their heads over the half-walls, curious about their visitors, and murmuring over the strangeness of sharing their quarters with a master and lady. Samuel shared with them their story, telling them of how far they had travelled, and how difficult the journey had been.
“Poor lady,” brayed an older ewe. “We will keep watch over her. No harm will come to her here.”
His lady let out another cry, a sound which was so soft and sad that it broke Samuel’s heart to hear it. He couldn’t bear to listen more. He noticed that the door to the stable was left ajar, so he nudged it open with his nose, and stepped out into the moonlight, away from the heart breaking cries of his lady.
Beyond the stables were the silvery fields of pasture land. Looking up into the inky black sky, Samuel saw the moon shining down on him, clear and white. It seemed to be whispering something to his heart, for he felt urged to enter the pasture, shimmering in its light. Despite his weary legs, Samuel followed the moonlight’s course into the field, where all he could hear was the rhythmic chirruping of insects and the occasional bray of a sheep, calling for his companions. The breeze was cool, and it chilled him a little as it whipped through the trees at the edge of the field, causing the leaves to quaver on their branches, creating sparkling waves of green and gray.
All of a sudden there was a brilliant burst of light in the sky, blinding Samuel momentarily with its bluish glow. He blinked a few times, trying to clear his eyes. When he looked up again he saw that something was different. Where there had once been an inky blackness before, there was now a new star shining instead. It looked like a shimmering gem nestled in a velvety sea, surrounded by other, less brilliant gems. This one was different. This star radiated a brilliance and fire that was different than any star Samuel had ever seen before.
Samuel heard some excited murmuring coming from over where a flock of sheep were grazing. Shepherds watching over their flock had seen the burst of light, and were exclaiming loudly over the new star, pointing toward the heavens.
Suddenly there was another burst of light, this time close to the field where they were standing. The figure of a man stood suspended in the light, and he approached the shepherds, who were trembling in fear.
“Fear not,” the man said, for he spoke just as any other man would speak. “For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
The shepherds looked to one another, with wonder on their faces, unable to speak.
“And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
The light surrounding the messenger began to expand, starting as a pulsing glow, then growing in size and brightness until finally the entire heavens were white, and Samuel could see the forms of a multitude of angels singing praises to God. Their voices rang out in one glorious voice together.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men!”
A sudden warmth rushed through Samuel, making his knees shake and his lip quiver. He was no longer cold, as he stood there listening to the joyous praises. It reminded him of how he felt when he heard his lady sing, rubbing her belly and smiling to herself. Suddenly he realized who she had been singing to.
As quickly as he could, Samuel turned back to the stable. The door was still open, but now all was quiet from within. Samuel poked his head into the room, almost afraid of what he would see. Would everything be alright with his master and lady?
Under the warm yellow glow of the single lantern was a sight that Samuel would never forget. His master was kneeling next to his lady, who was sitting amongst the animals and hay. In her arms, wrapped in a creamy white cloth and held close to her heart, was a tiny baby.
But this was no ordinary baby. The messenger in the field had told the shepherds of a Savior born this day, and then an entire host of heaven had born record of the miraculous birth. Master Joseph had told Samuel that his lady would bring with her the Master of all. Now Samuel realized that this child would be the greatest of masters.
His lady held the infant close to her, and started singing softly, kissing the child and caressing his cheek. That same warmth filled Samuel again, and this time he could feel the tingle all the way to his bones. As the other animals reverently peered into the stall, trying to catch a glimpse of the infant King, Samuel knew that this was no longer just a crowded stable. This stable was a sacred place, because it was here that the Son of God was brought into the world. A dove in the rafter made a gentle cooing sound, bobbing her head several times toward the scene below, and Samuel bowed himself down onto his knees, ready to worship his new Master.