When we finally made our way into the city of Jesus’ birth, it was, to say the least, anti-climactic. Though larger than Nazareth, it was an even smaller town than Capernaum: a dusty, drab-looking collection of domiciles and a few shops surrounding a community well. A handful of unfriendly-looking men and women, who came out to see our procession, followed us to this stopping point, but there would be no welcoming committee in Bethlehem, as there were in towns who had heard of the miracle-worker. Once again, however, as was Jesus’ custom, he began preaching by the well, in this central location, oblivious of the fact that hardly anyone had arrived.
The message to the citizens was the same—powerful and yet down-to-earth: a simple formula for salvation denied to them by the priests, who didn’t believe in an afterlife only in a set of rituals and sacrifices that did nothing for them in this life. To those few citizens who listened on the sidelines, Jesus was just another wild-eyed prophet from the desert. We understood this immediately, when graybeards—both Pharisees and rustic elders—appeared on the scene.
“Who are you to question the temple?” The first Pharisee called.
“I speak for my Father, whom your temple glorifies,” replied Jesus. “It is He for whom the temple was built.”
“Who is your father?” a man in butcher’s apron asked. “Is your father a rabbi or priest?”
Seeing sincerity in the ignorant man, Jesus answered, “He is your father, too—all men’s father, not a rabbi or priest. The temple was built for men, not the priests. We are all God’s children, are we not?”
“Hah! You’re clever one!” A second Pharisee stepped forth. “You’re that preacher from Nazareth; I’ve heard about you. With your honeyed tongue you spread blasphemies. Your miracles are the work of Beelzebub!”
“In deed!” A third Pharisee wrung his finger. “What right does this heretic have to speak for God? A stranger from Nazareth, of all places, comes to attack our temple and tradition, expecting us to listen and clap our hands—”
“I’m not a stranger,” Jesus interrupted with great irritation. “I was born here. I wasn’t born in Nazareth. Bethlehem’s my birth place. You, who think you represent the people, listen but you can’t hear. Your ears are stopped up with stubbornness and mean-spiritedness. Who are you to shield our people from the truth? I speak to those who know the Lord, but not the ritual or the law—those who thirst for the truth!”
At that point, as Jesus elaborated on his rebuttal, a large number of townsfolk were drawn finally to the scene. So once more, rephrased and expanded upon, Jesus preached, this time moving out, his arms outstretched as if he would bless them all. We, his disciples, were, of course, furious, at this reception, especially since it was a town special to Jesus’ heart. In stead of a welcoming touch of hands and a few words of goodwill, this mob recoiled, as if already predisposed against him.
At that point, a fourth, fifth, and sixth Pharisee, all spouting the same hatred, verbally attacked Jesus, drowning him out as he tried to speak. Those angry citizens not wearing phylacteries, such as the butcher, weren’t so strong in their outrage at Jesus and, like the butcher, stood back now, as the Pharisees took him to task. It was clear that Bethlehem was under the thumb of these self-righteous men. The remainder of the audience of men and women of various ages and a few children, were mostly just unfriendly and even a little frightened of Jesus, obviously worked up by the hate-mongering of these men. Peter, more visibly than the other fishermen, was livid with resentment. Seeing his scarlet face and clenched fists, Jesus had to physically restrain him. The other fishermen, Matthew, Simon, Thomas, James, and I presented a united front in our resentment but little else. As if a silent command was spread through the crowd, the townsfolk began to chant, “Blasphemer, heretic!”—words many of them probably didn’t understand. Bartholomew was so upset by this reception, I thought he might have a stroke. Matthew called the Pharisees puffed up swines, and Simon actually drew his sword.
Standing back from the hostile crowd, Jesus nevertheless stepped bravely in front of us—the shepherd protecting his flock. For a moment, as the Pharisees tried to whip up dissent by shouting, “Blasphemer, heretic, sacrilege!”, it looked as though the crowd might rush in to attack Jesus and his disciples. Despite his admonition to put away his weapon, Simon moved up beside him, vowing to die rather than let him be harmed. Matthew, who had only a dagger, and Peter, who, judging by his countenance was going to fight them with his bare fists, insisted on standing with him, too, and, after a moment of deliberation, all of the disciples stood with them, including Bartholomew, who brandished his cane.
Suddenly, as more townsfolk arrived, and, judging by their dress, a pair of magistrates were drawn to the scene, a crackly, wheezing voice cried out in the crowd. Moving through the audience, carrying a shepherd’s staff, he approached Jesus with great reverence and awe.
“I remember this man!” he exclaimed jubilantly. “He’s not a blasphemer or heretic. He’s the Redeemer, Israel’s Savior. Long ago, when I was with our flocks, the angels spoke to us. I’ll never forget what they said. It’s as clear in my mind as when I first heard it. They told us not to be afraid. In deed, it had scared us half to death. The angels said they brought good news, causing great joy among the people. ‘This night,’ they proclaimed, ‘in the town of David, a Savior was born: the Messiah and Lord.’ ‘This will be a sign to you,’ they said to us. ‘Look for an infant, wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger. That very night, we saw a star in the heavens so bright it was like the moon shining on the fields. My sons and I followed that star, until we found ourselves in the nearby hills, approaching a manger, where the very beasts worshipped the child.” “Yes, yes!” He raised his shaft in salute to Jesus. “…It’s you. When I asked your father what your name was. He answered, Jesus. I swore I would live until I saw you again.” “Here you are at last!” he wept with joy. Unable to speak a moment, he dropped his staff, bowed down to the ground as he would to a king and exclaimed, “Jesus—Messiah. My brother died, and my sons have moved away, but I waited. Too old and broken down for my flock, with no one else to help tend my sheep, I lost my livelihood. I became a beggar, living off alms, but I knew you’d come. After what I’ve heard happening in Galilee—the good news you bring to our people, I knew for certain that you were he.” “Save me, master,” he wept. “Let me rest in peace!”
Jesus looked down at him, his eyes filled with tears. I had never seen him so moved. Touching his head, his voice breaking, he called out his name, “Tobin, you are a righteous man. What words can anyone add to the testimony of your life. You were saved that day in the manger. This will be a reaffirmation of that. Now, as I sprinkle water on your head, I give the good news: all those who come unto me seeking God’s grace and have repented of their sins will have life everlasting. Your wait is over. Rise, Tobin, the way to paradise is your reward!”
Almost as an afterthought, Jesus poured a few drops of water on his head, but it seemed unnecessary. Other than Jesus himself, Tobin was one of the most righteous man I’ve ever known. Hearing what he said and how Jesus responded, I was reminded of who Jesus was and what the simple title of our congregation meant. The issue of whether or not Jesus was the long awaited Messiah had been settled in my mind. He was that and, by those other names (the Redeemer or Deliverer), the long awaited Savior, whose way led to ever lasting life. Tobin, one of the shepherds who found the manger, must have been one of the reasons why Jesus brought us to this unfriendly town. At this point, as the reaction to this stirring conversation settled into the minds of the townsfolk, I was certain many of them would be moved by Jesus’ and Tobin’s words. I could tell that my brethren felt the same. But all we could hear was grumbling and cursing, indicating disagreement, resentment, and disbelief.
The first Pharisee, who accosted Jesus, now ploughed crossly through the crowd, and attacked Tobin’s credibility: “That crazy old man doesn’t speak for Bethlehem. He’s a beggar and nuisance. His mind’s probably addled. No one else I’ve known ever reported such an event. You think we would know if something like that happened in our town!”
“No,” spat the second Pharisee, “it wouldn’t. I don’t believe it. It’s nonsense. A messiah? Born in a manger? Hah! We all know how our deliverer will come!”
“He’ll smite the Romans!” the third Pharisee cried
“Yes,” shouted the fourth Pharisee, “and Jerusalem will be the capital of the world!”
“You pillars of righteous indignation!” Jesus’ words dripped with sarcasm. “You puffed up purveyors of holy writ! You wonder why I speak for God. Who are you, who scarcely know Him, to speak for God?” “This man,” he added, raising up Tobin and presenting him to the crowd, “is more blessed than any of you. He’s lived a blameless life, and you mock him because he was forced to beg. You call him a nuisance, who, because he speaks the truth, is addled in the head.” “Get out of my sight—all of you!” He pointed to the crowd. “I won’t cast pearls before swine!”
A collective gasp rose up from the audience. It seemed even to the faithful Peter, who gave him a frightened look, that Jesus had gone too far, but then it happened. The dust cloud, similar to the one we saw as we confronted Barabbas, swirled up suddenly, moving toward the townsfolk, scattering them like rats as Peter put it aptly, until the Pharisees, town elders, and mob vanished completely from the town square. Tobin’s begging days were over. He would, Jesus insisted, accompany us back to Capernaum. Bartholomew said there was plenty of room for him to ride in the cart. In the company of the elect, led by the Messiah, he would spend the remainder of his days. Staggered by the message given to us this hour, no one doubted that Jesus was the Anointed One promised by John the Baptist. Even now, however, no one, including James and myself, knew his most important identity. The revelation Jesus accepted from Tobin for himself was a big enough shock. It almost seemed as if Jesus had waited for this hour. From this day forward, the reverence toward our Shepherd would grow. For now, we were still wary of the attitude of this town. In Nazareth, another historical town in Jesus’ life, he had almost been stoned.
Normally, in the larger communities, Jesus would have us visit the synagogue, but because of our reception, this was out of the question. As we filled our water skins from the well, he told us that there was one more place we must visit before heading north: the manger where he was born. This brought on a few grumbles, not so much for impatience to leave, but from fear. Other than Tobin, who was worth a hundred citizens of Bethlehem, there were, thanks to the Pharisees, no converts made here. The mindset of the townsfolk had been predisposed after the persuasion of those men. Just as we began heading through town, something unexpected appeared. A distance shadow appeared on the barren road ahead… Something evil now came our way.
“Stop.” Jesus turned to us. “I knew I would see it again.”
“It?” James voiced quivered. “What is that thing?”
A dark, misbegotten creature in black, holding his hood over his face with a clawed hand, approached slowly. His back seemed humped and he walked with great effort, as if he was carrying a heavy load. The closer he came, though, the more my first impression changed. The hump on his back appeared to be great wings, which explained his gait. Two red eyes peered out of the blackness of his hood, and the scaly skin visible on his arms and hand glistened like polished bronze. Except for the day I was kidnapped by bandits in the desert, I had never felt such terror. All of us, even the pugnacious Simon, trembled with fear. Tobin, however, stood up in the cart, and pointed at the apparition.
“It’s the hermit, who lives in the hills,” he declared excitedly. “I saw him that night when I left the manger. He reminded me of giant bat. I thought it was the end of me, until an angel scared him away.”
Upon closer inspection, the creature coming toward us did, in fact, look like a great, dark bat with its winds folded, until, when it only a short distance away, its appearance became clarified. There standing before us, appearing like a monstrous bird, with a man’s leprous body between it is wings, was something worse than the Gorgon or Medusa of Greek mythology. I remember in my travels seeing fanciful drawing of that creature, but this was, upon reflection, much worse.
“It’s the Devil,” Jesus corrected Tobin gently, “cursed to be an infernal thing.”
“That’s a monster!” Peter found his voice.
“Kill it, Jesus,” John implored. “Use your powers to destroy that beast!”
“It has many names:” Jesus stood his ground. “Satan, Beelzebub, the Tempter. Don’t sully the name of the beasts. For me this is the Devil, neither man nor woman, but an infernal shape-changing fiend.”
The thing now spoke. “I know you!” a frothy, high-pitched voice spewed from the recess of the hood. “You’re Jesus of Nazareth, the miracle worker, the Lamb of God. Some lamb you turned out to be. Because of you, three thousand children in Bethlehem were murdered by Herod’s men. Thanks to those meddling magi, Herod thought you would replace him as King, but—he-he, your kingdom is not of this world, eh Jesus? You really think people will believe that tale?”
“Why do you frighten my men?” Jesus replied calmly. “At least show your face.”
Obligingly, in a blur of motion, as the shape-shifter changed, it melted onto the ground, and then, as a formless blob, inched upwards until it was the height of man. Hands, legs, and head grew out of the glistening mass, then fingers, toes, and facial features, until a hideous parody of a human stood before them. So frightened were we—Jesus’ disciples, we would have fled the scene, if he had not commanded us to stay.
The translucent, naked creature, quickly transformed into a woman, who remained transparent a moment as the details took shape. The pink skin of a mortal woman that followed and female organs taking form, would have scandalized the Pharisees recently in our midst, but soon, as her blue eyes, light brown hair, red lips, and delicate hands and feet formed, her naked body was suddenly clad in the familiar hood, sandals, and gown of a Jewish matron. Jesus and his brothers (James and I) recognized the specter at once. Satan had taken the form of our mother, Mary, who gave birth to the Messiah and King.
“Oh my Lord,” James said in a strangled voice. “That’s outrageous—horrible!”
“Yes, Jesus,” I cried. “This is awful. Kill it or send it back to Hell.”
“Who is this woman?” John asked innocently. “She’s beautiful!”
“It’s supposed to be our mother,” Jesus remained tranquil. “Throughout history, it has taken human form. God has given him its role. Because of evil rulers and their subjects, influenced by Satan, and lapse of our temple priests, it has gained strength and harvested many souls. For this reason, I have come into this world.”
Though this was the closest Jesus had ever come to unveiling his full identity, the other disciples were too overwhelmed with the specter before them. That it was imitating Jesus saintly mother was, as James claimed, outrageous and horrible. Most of the disciples stood behind Jesus speechless and dumbfounded. James and I, and to Jesus irritation, Matthew and Simon, let our feelings be known.
“Be gone, you creature,” Simon waved his sword, “or I will cut you down.”
“Put that away at once!” Jesus pulled him back to the group.
“You monster! You dare imitate Jesus’ mother!” Matthew said, gathering spit in his a mouth. “Take that you, infernal fiend!”
Following his example, Philip, John, and his brother James spat on the thing and Peter, Andrew, Thomas, Bartholomew, my brother James, and I thrust handfuls of dust, which the fake Mary, wiped off her face, uttering an icy laugh, exclaiming in my mother’s voice, “Fools, sycophants—you follow a marked man. You tell him to destroy me! Hah, he can’t do that it! The priests, scribes, and Pharisees will destroy him! Just you wait and see!”
“You can’t stop me.” Jesus motioned dismissively. “You’re wrong, Satan. I could destroy you, but I won’t. It’s not God’s plan. Instead I will dispel you like a fly or gnat.” “Be gone, Tempter.” He pointed to the road. “Go annoy someone else!”
As if the words “Go annoy someone else” had magical properties, Satan vanished completely. Jesus turned to us and smiled. He had been calm throughout the encounter. Everyone else, however, heaved a sigh of relief, and chattered excitedly about the event.
“Whoa, that was something!” Peter said, wiping his brow.
“That wasn’t a something.” I shuddered. “That was the Devil!”
James muttered excitedly, “I never thought I’d meet it in person. Now it turns out, it’s not even a man!”
“It’s not human,” Tobin’s voice quivered, “Worse than the first time I saw it…. I thought I’d faint dead away!”
“I-I can scarcely conceive of such a thing,” Simon stared blankly into space.
“Me neither,” Bartholomew agreed, with wide unblinking eyes.
“It was like nothing I’ve never seen,” Thomas searched for the words. “…. First a dark hermit, then bat-like fiend, then a blob that became human—the mother of Jesus, the Messiah.”
“It’s a shape-shifter,” Jesus reminded us. “In a different form that thing tempted Herod and all evil men of history. Let’s put this behind us. It won’t be the first time it appears.”
“Where did he go?” John stepped out to where it stood. “Back to Hell? Like a viper or jackal, does it pop up once in awhile?”
“It’s not in Hell,” Jesus placed his hand on John’s shoulder. “When my Father cleaned out the rebels of Heaven, sin was born. Hell, filled with these rebels, chief of whom was Satan, was created. God gave Satan dominion over sinners, and the gates of Hell were open.” “But Satan isn’t the only evil spirit,” he warned us. “There are other devils roaming the Earth.”
“What!?” Peter’s mouth dropped. “Surely your not serious.”
“Yes, Jesus,” I asked, stunned by his words, “do you literally mean ‘devils’ or just evil souls? Why would God allow such a thing?”
“God is unknowable,” explained Jesus. “His ways unquestioned. The world is a testing ground: God versus Satan, good versus evil, and right versus wrong. Given freewill after Adam’s fall, people have a choice, but with the world’s pagan religions and flawed priesthood, the line between good and evil has been blurred. Ritual and animal sacrifice have replaced daily prayer and faith… Now there’s a new wind blowing that will one day change the world. The magis and shepherds first saw it. My earthly family lived with it for many years before I was called. Now it’s upon us. I bring the wind. You shall direct it. We’ve begun His work as harvesters and fishers of men. Now the seed is blown far and wide.”
Raising his arms, he gathered us to him like children. “Let us finish the task!” he exclaimed spiritedly. “We have much to do!”
At this point, we were not only harvesters and fishers of men; we would channel this new wind—the good news that brings salvation and hope. When I said this to James later, he laughed hysterically, overwhelmed with what he had seen and heard. In Philip’s words it was the high-water mark of strangeness in Jesus’ ministry. That moment, after witnessing Satan’s debut, and as we digested the notion of devils on Earth and Jesus admitting just who he was, we followed the Shepherd north, through Bethlehem, filled with wonder but fearful of the days ahead.
“Just who are these devils?” Bartholomew muttered, looking out of his cart. “Do they look like Satan? Are they everywhere or just in some places, where evil thrives? Are they shape-shifters, too?
“Don’t worry,” Tobin smiled, taking the reins. “Jesus will protect us. Satan and his devils don’t stand a chance!”
“They better not get in the way of my sword!” Simon swore.
Simon’s boast drew frowns from the disciples. James, Matthew, Bartholomew, and I had accepted this strange man. His urge to draw his sword to protect our leader, though commendable, came quickly with too much energy. James suggested discreetly that this was his nature. I was never sure how much he believed Simon’s conversion, but Bartholomew and I, who had been out in the world and seen how men behave, saw a fire in his eyes that must have been zeal (hence the epithet added to his name ‘the Zealot’ he later received from Jesus). It would take time for the other disciples to accept Simon and, for that matter Matthew, the onetime publican, and the peculiar mannered Thomas. As a temple guard, men who did the priests bidding, and an agent of the high priest sent to spy on Jesus, Simon’s acceptance would be the most difficult of them all.
At the edge of town, Jesus reminded us of our last stop: the manger where he was born. We had passed the nearby hills where it was located. No one dared to protest this stop. In fact, there was a silent, breathless awe amongst us I could almost feel. Now, taking a trail once pointed out to our parents by an innkeeper, he led us to a cave in the side of the nearest hill. Still used by a farmer for his livestock, it looked every bit like a makeshift place for livestock. We were, Jesus told us, seeing a rustic setting very much like the one that greeted our parents when they first glimpsed the cave. This place was blessed, he said with great sincerity. A star had shown overhead to guide the magi and shepherds. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh—items our father hid away to prevent highwaymen from stealing these sacred items, were presented to the holy couple that night. Looking around the humble shelter, we were deeply moved. We could just imagine the three magi bowing before the newborn king, a title Jesus would not admit until asked by the high priest. This hour, having great knowledge of Jesus’ history, James broke into prayer, rejoicing quietly that it was all true: Jesus miracles, his wondrous words, and now this—the very place where he was born. As Jesus stirred the religious hornet’s nest, I had doubted his safety, never his role in bringing the good news. Nor had I doubt how exceptional my oldest was. He had several titles now: preacher, teacher, prophet, Anointed and Promised One, and most recently Messiah. Now, during our visit to the manger, I sensed as James and the others, that he was much more.
Already in our journey, I had shared what I knew of the story with my companions. Jesus’ account of his birth in the manger, the magi, and shepherds, similar to what James and I remember, was based upon our mother’s account. Coming from Jesus lips, however, it had special meaning. He was telling us his own story, in his own words, which, in a sense, considering his relationship with God, was a first hand account. The story of his birth told to us by our mother, of course, has a prelude, which he omitted from the retelling: an earlier point when Gabriel appeared to her and told her of the upcoming birth. There are also details such as the attitude of the townsfolk about her sudden condition that he left out, which would have distracted from the account. What we heard from Jesus that day dealt only with the manger and his birth.
“Picture it in your minds, men,” he said pointing to the humble cave. “… A pregnant teenage girl, on a donkey, traveling with her husband from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem during the winter, the worst time of year. Our father’s ancestral sword, handed down to us from the reign of Solomon, would have been too wieldy for him to bring along, so their only protection was his carpenter’s knife and bare fists. The road to Judea was often threatened by bandits. There were hungry wolves that time of year, and even lions coming down from the hills.” “Nevertheless.” He looked squarely at James and me. “Mary and Joseph, our parents, arrived safely in Bethlehem to be counted in Herod’s census, pay their taxes to Caesar, and, most importantly, considering our mother’s condition, find lodging in town. The Lord had watched over them each step of the way; neither bandits nor wild beasts assailed them. Even the weather had been tamed during their journey. When they arrived in town, however, there was no room at the inn. In fact, there wasn’t lodging anywhere in this town. The innkeeper told them of a cave near the edge of town, which a farmer used as a manger for his cattle, donkeys, and sheep. Straw on the floor was placed in one of the empty drinking troughs and used as a cradle for my birth. The animals sharing the manger at night or during bad weather were normally out in the pasture after eating their fill, but on that special night they night crowded into the cave, around the couple, as Mary gave birth, giving us warmth. In my mother’s words, they were the first to pay homage to the child. Earlier, the magi, Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior, who informed Herod they were looking for a newborn king, had been led this far by a star in the heavens. Sensing Herod’s evil intentions, after his inquisitiveness, they slipped away and continued their journey. Trusting their search to God and their beacon, they found the manger directly below the star. After handing our parents their treasures, they bowed down in a posture of reverence. Soon after this, the shepherds arrived.”
At this point, with Jesus’ coaxing, Tobin, who had been one of the shepherds, told us how they were led to the manger, this time following the directions given to them by angels. Simply put, the angels told them to follow the star. Jesus paused after hearing him finish the story of his birth. The full account, which included the blessing given to him by Simeon in the temple, the flight of our parents with the child, and the subsequent story of Jesus’ childhood, which James and I experienced in person, would be left for a later day. He remained silent as he stood there, a frown playing on his face. Perhaps, he was saddened by Satan’s reminder of the murder of all those children because of Herod’s jealousy or perhaps he was receiving a revelation from God. For several moments, as he stood there in deep meditation, we looked around at the manger trying to imagine the holy scene. James and I, who had lived with the Messiah, felt especially blessed. We took samplings of the straw and stuffed them into our pockets. I noticed the other disciples doing the same.
When Bartholomew and Tobin climbed into the cart, I took the reins of the mule and led it down the path. Ahead of us I could see great animation in the men. As they chattered excitedly about this wondrous day, they reminded me again of children. It occurs to me now, that we were all children, grappling with the sublime. James was in deep thought, as he held the edge of the cart. Everyone else sounded as though they had just drunk unwatered wine.