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· kept in His hands
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The Christmas Story
by Real Live Preacher

Part Five
The Angels

Angels appear, now and again, in the pages of the bible. They are bringers of tidings and aid. You can forget those pictures of fluffy white characters with halos and wings.

And then sometimes they look like regular people, and no one recognizes them at all.

The writer of Hebrews thought this a serious enough matter that he gave this dire warning:

"You better be kind to strangers, because some have entertained angels and never known it."

On the night Joseph and Mary lay despairing in a Bethlehem street, in fact, at the moment of their deepest need, an angel happened to be walking through that very town. His name was Elias, and he had no idea he was an angel. He would have been shocked had anyone suggested such a thing.

But he WAS an angel. Very much an angel on this night.

Every shepherd in and around Bethlehem knew Elias and his wife Esther. Elias had been a shepherd himself in his younger days, back when his bones could handle the walking and the hard work. He was retired, you might say. He and Esther lived in a modest little home on the edge of town.

Elias lived a quiet life now, doing odd jobs and tending to the birthing of lambs. He and Esther still kept busy, but in different ways. There were grandchildren constantly underfoot, friends who dropped by to chat, and animals to care for. Sometimes Elias would visit the shepherds in the field. He liked to sit by the fire and tell them stories of the old days.

On this particular night he had visited a young shepherd's home to check on an ailing lamb. They fed him for his trouble, and with his belly full he was in a good mood, whistling as he walked home. He rounded a corner and almost stumbled over Joseph cradling Mary in his lap in the middle of a narrow lane.

"Hey, watch out there young fella. Why you out here in the middle of the street?"

Joseph was startled to hear a voice and jumped to his feet. He grabbed Elias by his robes. "Please, help us. My wife is having the baby…right now. And we're from far away, out of town. And I guess we don't know anyone, so do you know anyone?"

Elias knelt to get a closer look at Mary. "Hold on there, now. You're from out of town, you say? Ain't you got nobody to help ya?"

"No, no. That's what I'm saying. We don't have anyone. We thought we did, but…I have money, only it's not here. It'll be here in a couple weeks, I promise, but suddenly the baby was coming, and I couldn't find anyone or anyplace. Look, none of that matters now, only just, do you know someone who can help us? The baby is COMING, see?"

Elias laid a hand on Mary's tummy and looked down, almost like he was listening. She was between contractions, breathing hard, but alert. He watched her seriously for a moment, then smiled and looked up at Joseph.

"This here's your first, ain't it?"

Joseph nodded.

Elias laughed. "Hee, I can always tell." He looked back at Mary, serious again. "Okay darlin, you tell old Elias. How long has the pain been real bad?"

Mary thought for a moment. "A couple of hours, I guess."

He looked once more at Mary and then stood up, rubbing his hands together. "Nah, you kids got time. Now listen here, sweetheart. You sit still a moment, till you get to feelin like you could stand. When the pain comes again, you squeeze your man's hand hard, and go ahead and scream. It don't make NO matter how loud neither, understand? And when you're ready, we'll get you up and walkin. I'm takin you home. My Esther'll take care of ya. I guess she's birthed, I don't know, hundreds of babies."

He looked away and upwards, with his lips moving like he was figuring numbers. "Yeah, got to be HUNDREDS, by now."

A sudden rush of violent relief unloosed something in Joseph. He lost control of himself for a moment, and his body shook with racking sobs. Elias looked away politely.

When he was finished, Joseph took a couple of deep breaths and said, "Thank you, Elias. I don't even know how to… You came at just the right moment. We didn't, uh...I don't know what we were gonna do. I don't know anything about babies or…"

Elias cut Joseph off with a wave of his hand. "Well, now you forget all that. We didn't have much choice, did we? We couldn't let little missy have her baby in the middle of this ALLEY, now could we?" He snorted. "Course not!"

He said, "we." He said it, and Joseph thought he had never heard a word more beautiful. They were alone, but Elias came, and now they were "we."

Joseph got his donkey and pack, and they began walking to Elias' home. It was a terrible journey. Every so often the contractions would come, and Mary would have to sit down in the street and find a way to get through the pain. Elias rolled up a piece of cloth for her to bite on and told her to breathe a lot. While they were walking, he told her about Esther to keep her mind off her misery.

"Don't you worry, little one. Like I said, Esther's birthed hundreds uh children. She loves em. AND she's got a soft spot for young mothers, too. Specially first timers. She'll take good care uh you. Like she was your own mother."

Tears welled up in Mary's eyes when Elias said, "your own mother." She looked at Joseph, who nodded sadly, bit his lip, and looked away.

The walk only took an hour, but it seemed like forever. Finally Elias told them they were getting close. At one point he stopped and whistled loudly. A woman's face appeared in the window of a small house.

"Sarah, we got a woman havin a baby here. They're strangers, and they got nowhere to go. Hustle down to my house, wouldja sweetheart, and tell Esther we got an emergency comin."

The girl ran off in the darkness. Elias looked at Joseph and said, "Sweet girl, that Sarah. Don't you worry; Esther'll be ready for us."

At last they came within sight of Elias' home. It was a simple, one-room house with a flat roof. A woman was silhouetted in the doorway, holding a lamp. Elias left Mary with Joseph and ran to the door. He spoke briefly with the woman, then turned back and shouted, "This is Esther." The woman nodded at them and took charge.

"Sarah, help me get this young woman…what's your name, sweetheart?"

"It's Mary," Joseph said.

"Yes, thank you dear. Sarah, help me get Mary into the house, and then run find Hannah and Judith. Tell them what's happened. They'll know what to bring."

Esther and Sarah helped Mary into the house. Joseph started to follow, but Elias caught him by the sleeve. "Hey there, young fella. You and I'll stay out here. Come over to my shed; we'll sit and have some wine. You listen here, now. Mary'll be fine. She's in Esther's hands, and Esther...well…Esther knows all what to do."

Elias looked at the door to his house, now closed, and nodded with pride and confidence.

"I promise you this, there's no better place in all the world for your Mary to be than right here."

(to be continued in Part Six - The Manger)
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