Monday, January 31, 2011


She sat beneath a blossoming almond tree as the wind blew soft, white petals all around her.  She loved to do this, she once told her mother, because it felt as if God was giving her kisses.  She closed her eyes, pulled an unruly ringlet of hair behind her ear, and laid her head against the tree trunk.  The day was fading into the west, and settling into her memory.

Her thoughts were a dance of questions and observances.  Though she was young (tomorrow would be her fifteenth birthday), it never seemed any age quite suited her.  Her mother had long noticed this, and often called her “Little Grandma.”  She seemed to take in the world in a mysterious way, eyes wide as a little girl, thoughts deep as a prophetess.  Her mother liked to watch her at her prayers at night, praying for just about every person she’d met that day. “Bless Mom and Dad. Bless Elizabeth.  Bless the mean looking man at the market.  Bless the lady who sold me flowers…”  And on it would go.

Today, though, her thoughts went inward.  She had practically been raised in the temple, and, until recently, she thought she knew her calling to serve inside it.  She was sure.  But being an only child in a culture that favoured male progeny could complicate matters that she thought had been settled.  A husband would be good for her, her parents told her.  He would care for her, watch over her, guard her.

He seemed a good enough man, a man she knew she could perhaps even love in some way.  But from as long as she could remember, she had been told she was the handmaid, the spouse, of the Lord.  Part of her could not help but feel she was betraying her First Love.

I know what I am called to.  I know it.  I feel it.  How can I be wed when…. A bird lit upon the ground just a short distance away.  It was plain as a sparrow but for a striking blue stripe upon its breast.  It nipped lightly at the ground, looked up, and gave a chirrup.  It caught her eye, cocked its head in a kind of base thoughtfulness, and fluttered away.  And she found herself at peace.  

Common, she thought, but not ordinary.

She gazed upon the purpling sky, and her thoughts were carried to the faces she had seen today: the beggar at the city gate with whom she had shared a smile, the little barefoot boy she’d heard singing to himself while he played with a stick in a mud puddle, her mother singing quietly through her work, her father resting from his work for a moment and wiping sweat from his brow.  Her mind’s eye drifted through these moments, and secret prayers began to float from silently moving lips as the diminishing sun placed its last warm rays upon her cheeks.

Falling almond petals fell lightly upon her open hands.  A june bug droned somewhere in the tree above her.  Wheels turned and creaked on a mule-drawn cart across the road.  She closed her eyes and felt as though she were in the presence of Love Itself, and that each of her prayers, and her questions, would be answered in time.

When she opened her eyes to see an angel, standing before the setting sun, she was surprised, but somehow not alarmed.   

"Hello, Mary, Graceful One.”

He was no less tangible than the tree against her back, but of no more weight than the almond blossom on her cheek.  His robes were white, but seemed to swirl with light, as if what her eyes perceived as white was actually the thriving, vital presence of all colour.  His skin was tan and vibrant, and like his robes, it seemed to be alive with light.  His eyes were a kind and verdant green, and when he spoke, his voice was like a song.

“The Lord is with you, Mary.  He is proud of you.  You are,” he smiled, “highly favoured.”

She drew a breath.  Her cheeks reddened.  She was a simple girl, and humility accepts praise with caution.  Her thoughts began to race with half-formed questions and unknown meanings.  A greeting like this would either come with a great task or a foreboding announcement.  

"Don't be afraid,” he said, and his eyes smiled.  “I have good news for you, Little Grandma.  You are going to have a son.  And you will name him ‘Jesus’.”

She took a breath.

"He will be great,” he continued.  He took a knee and placed a weightless, comforting hand upon her shoulder.   “And he will be called Son of the Most High God.  Yahweh God will give him the throne of David, his father.  He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.”

Mary took another breath.

The angel smiled.  “It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?”

Mary nodded.  Hesitated.

“I believe you,” she whispered.  “but… how will this be?  I am consecrated.  I’m a virgin.  I can’t break that promise.”

The angel seemed to revel in her question.  "This will not be the son of any man, Mary.  The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and God's power will overshadow you. So the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.  This may seem impossible, but just look at your cousin Elizabeth.  She has conceived a son as well, old as she is.  The one they called barren is in her sixth month of pregnancy, because nothing…” his smile widened with joy, “Nothing is impossible for God.”

He was became silent, like an advisor to a monarch waiting for a reply.

Streams ran down her face.  Her life, her heart, her calling, seemed to coalesce in this moment.  The angel’s words seemed to pierce through to her heart like a sword, and nothing had ever felt so right.  She wiped the tears away with a smile and a sniffle, took another deep breath, and spoke.  

"I am the Lord's servant,” she said.  “May it be done as you have said."

The angel bowed, and was gone.   

The petal of an almond blossom fell upon her lips.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


“May I talk to you?”

She spoke quietly, her eyes mindful of a small embarrassment, her frail hand upon his elbow.

“Hannah.  Yes.  Come with me.”

He returned her softly spoken tone in kind.  He put a strong, old arm around her shoulder and led her to a quiet corner of the busy temple.

“What is it?”

No one took notice of her, but her self-consciousness lingered.

“Well, it’s… It’s been a difficult couple of months for Noah and me.”  Her nervousness gave her a plaintive smile.

“I know.” he said.  

Noah, her adult son, waited a short distance away.  He appeared to be counting something no one else could see.  He was nearly thirty years old, but his mind had remained somewhere in his tenth year.  Hannah was seldom seen without him in tow, holding his hand, caring for each detail of his necessarily ordered life.  She had steadfastly dedicated herself to his care, and, though most people assumed she was a widow, she had never married Noah’s father.  He’d left her crying before he’d even known he was a father.  Her penance was love, and she was glad of it.

“You know I love this community, I love to be here with Noah.  I always try to give what I can.”

“I know.” he said again.  He knew well the path this talk was taking.

“I want to give my offering, but I… I can’t afford any of the doves they’re selling.” Her voice quavered as she smiled again.  “It’s important to me, and I...”

“I know, Hannah.”  His voice was even, and warm.  “It’s alright.  I can get a turtle dove for you.  Don’t worry about it.”

“Thank-you.”  Her face flickered between smiles and persistent tears.  “Thank-you so much.”

He watched her join her son, watched her take Noah’s hand, and watched her kiss him on the cheek.  She tiptoed and put her forehead against his.

“I love you, Noah.”

“I love you, Mom!”

And the two walked on.

This was not the first time he had provided for Hannah, neither was this the first Hannah.  For years now, he had seen people like Hannah struggle to get by, to live day after day, year after year, faithful to their families, their church, their God, all the while living in poverty, under a system that crushed hope.  

He had earned a reputation as a friend of the poor, a teacher and a man of God quite unlike any other.  His knowledge of the scripture was unparalleled, having translated much of it from Hebrew.  Yet, for all his knowledge, he radiated humility and grace like a gently burning candle.  People were drawn to the inviting quiet of that flame.

Tonight, he sat on his bed and ran his fingers through his grey hair and sighed.  Pages from the writings of Isaiah lay next to him.  His fascination with the prophet had persisted for many years, and he had nearly memorized the entire book.  He knew it, quite literally, by heart.  That heart was drawn to Isaiah’s words like a song.  Isaiah spoke of the oppressed and the forgotten, of promise and redemption, of hope and freedom.  He closed his eyes and the words of the prophet came quietly to his mind.

Comfort, give comfort to my people.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.

He saw Hannah gently kissing Noah’s cheek.

“Come, Lord.” he whispered.  “Save us.  Comfort your people.  We need a Saviour.”

He saw Hannah walking next to her son, her hand upon his shoulder.

He sniffed, wiped the corners of his eyes, and ran his hand across his beard.  He became aware of the profound silence around him.  He noticed the sound of the flickering flame struggling against the candle’s wax.  Another phrase from Isaiah crept into his mind.

The virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.

He recalled how many days it had taken him to translate that line, so deceiving in its simplicity, and wondered again if he’d gotten the words just right.

You did.  You will see him while you live on this earth.  I promise this.

The voice did not come from anywhere but inside him, but it was so undeniably other that he instinctively looked around, searching for its source.  There was no one in the room, but he was not alone.  A shade of green, barely perceptible but apparent nonetheless, lingered like a rainbow’s mist, and everything seemed to be faintly glowing.  He could hear his heart beating within him, and the words seemed to repeat with each soft thud in his chest.  

I promise this.

The flame regained its strength.  The glow disappeared.  Quietly, he wept.


His favourite act of his priestly duties were the baby dedications.  When he held a child, he looked into his eyes, searching for something.  Often it seemed a voice had whispered into his ear, and he smiled as if a secret had been revealed.