As has become tradition, Christmas Eve means another Christmas Story for the saints at the Crafton Heights Church. My hope is that exploring The Story in this way will help us find ourselves in it…and maybe it in us as well. We read Luke 2:1-20 as we prepared for the following story. If you enjoy this, you might want to know about I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas, my 2011 compilation of short stories for the Advent Season. You can find it here.
Twelve-year-old Reuben was among the tallest boys around. He was smart, he was well-spoken – he was the kind of boy that any dad in Nazareth would have been proud of – except for that arm. Something had happened the day he was born, and ever since then, his left arm had hung limp by his side…useless. No, it was worse than useless. If it were merely useless, then Reuben would have overcome that already by virtue of his hard work and his desire to please his family. Every day, Reuben showed up at the grinding mill, where with his one good arm he hitched the donkey to the wheel and loaded flour and grain and helped people who were eager to feed their families.
Yet every day of his life, Reuben endured the scorn of those who believed that his disability was an affliction sent by God to punish him for some sin. The children his age taunted him. He was unable to think about joining his father in service at the Temple. Perhaps that’s why he was so quiet and introspective. I don’t really know. I do know that most of the time he watched as an outsider.
I also know of one day, like most days, when he helped old Rachel pour out grain to be ground into flour. She seemed to come every day, like clockwork. He was glad for that, because unlike most of the customers who tried to avoid him, Rachel actually treated him as a human, and spoke with him almost like an equal. As he helped her, he commented, “Are you baking again? You cook more bread than anyone I know! Who is there to eat all this bread? Do you have a lot of relatives who stay with you?”
The older woman smiled and said simply, “Well, not in the way that you’re thinking of.” She paused, and then continued, “Look – tomorrow is the Sabbath. Why don’t you come and see me and share some of this bread?”
As he wandered through the village the next day, Reuben thought about Rachel. She may have been a widow, he thought, yet he couldn’t remember her having any children. At any rate, he knew that she went through a lot of flour. He arrived at her home, which was empty – but clearly ready for company. There were several benches, and the table was laden with freshly-baked bread as well as a large container of wine. There was also a scroll on the table.
“Welcome to my home,” Rachel beamed. “I have lived here for nearly my entire life. I came back here to stay after my husband, Joses, died.” She noted the unasked question on Reuben’s face, and continued, “No, we did not have any children…he died before that prayer could be answered.”
Reuben, who had four brothers and two sisters, blurted out, “You must be awfully lonely, then!” Yet as he said it, he couldn’t help but wonder about those vast sacks of flour that she used.
“Oh, no, my friend. If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s lonely. I was, and might still be, were it not for a conversation I had many years ago.”
She continued. “Have you heard of the teacher, Jesus?”
Reuben nodded – there was nobody in Galilee who hadn’t heard of this man. “He’s the one who was killed – in a rebellion or something? – a long time ago, right?”
“Yes,” Rachel said, “he was the son of Joseph and Mary, crucified more than 25 years ago by the Romans.” She sighed, and the room got very quiet.
“He was the most amazing man I ever knew,” Rachel offered, with a faraway look in her eyes. “Although we didn’t speak much as children, I saw him most days when I was growing up. He was several years older than I. When I was about fifteen, I married his brother, Joses. At that time, Joses and Jesus were working together in the carpentry shop their father had established.”
“Oh, Reuben, it was so wonderful to be young,” the older woman gushed. “As Jesus was not married, he was often in our home. We ate together. We laughed – oh, how we laughed together! And Jesus – well, Jesus knew the scripture better than anyone I’d ever met. He was far wiser than any of the teachers of the Law we had in town then – but he was only a carpenter! He spoke so beautifully of God’s ways – every time we spoke, I wanted to hear more and more and more.”
“But then things changed. Jesus just quit one day. He left the shop and went down to the lake. He became a teacher, and even gathered a few followers to his side. And then, even though he wasn’t at home, it was a wonderful change, at least at first. One day, I was taking him some bread, and I saw him heal a blind man! I had known that man my whole life, and when Jesus touched him, he could see!”
“I don’t know whether it was the miracles that brought people or his teaching. One day, there were more than 5,000 men who gathered just to listen to him speak. Jesus – our Jesus – was becoming famous!”
“But as his popularity increased, we saw him less and less. Oh, we still got together for family meals, but he was rarely there. And when he did come, he was never alone. I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the times that year when he showed up at the door by himself. Always, he had two or three – or fifteen or twenty – people with him.”
“At first, I thought them to be students, and I tried to respect them. Even though most of them were fishermen, we didn’t mind. All of us knew someone who worked hard out on the lake, and I sure didn’t begrudge them.”
“But soon enough, he started showing up with all sorts of people! We would be gathered for dinner and Jesus would walk in with a tax collector or someone even worse! One time, he tried to bring a Samaritan into our home! There were women who I knew to be prostitutes – and he must have, too – he couldn’t have been that blind. I was embarrassed!”
“And then, in my mind, it just got worse and worse, Reuben. Can you imagine trying to eat dinner and having a leper walk into your home? Sure, he said he’d been cleansed, but when you’ve known a person to be sick for fifteen years, you don’t expect him to just ‘get better’ from leprosy. And there were beggars, and cripples and…”
Here, Rachel’s voice trailed off as she found herself gazing uncomfortably at the withered arm that hung by Reuben’s side.
“Reuben, I’m not proud of this, but the truth is that I allowed my irritation with Jesus’ friends to drive me away from him. Know this, Reuben, and know it well: I loved Jesus. But I simply could not stand his friends. And so gradually, I began to remove myself from Jesus’ presence.”
“After I complained for a while, Joses and I eventually moved down to Tiberias where he started his own carpentry shop. We rarely spoke of Jesus, and saw him even less. I cut Jesus out of my life altogether.”
“During this time, my mother-in-law, Mary, came to visit. She was not one to beat around the bush, and she simply came out and asked me about my absence from Nazareth. I was ashamed, and embarrassed. I didn’t want to say anything. But finally I erupted into anger.”
“It had always been clear that Jesus was her favorite child, and I surely didn’t want to offend her – she’d been nothing but kind to me. But my anger towards these ‘friends’ – and towards Jesus himself – had been simmering for so long that I just exploded into a tirade about Jesus and the people he kept bringing home.”
“To my great surprise, she listened, and then she smiled, and then she said, ‘Well, Rachel, I know how you feel!’ Just like that! Plain as day, his own mother agreed with me.”
“She talked to me about the early days – even when he was born. I had never heard about the fact that she’d given birth to him in a stable, nor about the fact that while she was just recovering from that, a group of shepherds came barging in and wanted to see the baby! Can you imagine that? Her, covered with blood and who knows what else, and these hooligans from outside coming in and talking about angels and other nonsense?”
“Not long after that, Mary told me, there was a group of gentiles who came looking for him. Again, these strangers just barged right into the house where they were staying. They said all kinds of strange things about her son, and gave her some strange presents, and then just left.”
“And then Mary said, ‘But in some ways, that was just the start. When Jesus was growing up, he would have conversations with the strangest people. Joseph and I never knew where we’d find him, or who he’d be with. It used to really irritate me…no, worse than that, Jesus was scaring me.’”
Rachel sat for a moment, remembering this conversation with Jesus’ mother. She continued: “I interrupted Mary, and I said, ‘but you have always stayed with him! How? Why?’”
“And Mary looked back at me and said simply, ‘He is my son. He is the reason I am who I am, in many ways. And I love him. I do not expect him to live a long life. And I want him near me every day. And if loving him means loving his friends, then I guess that I can learn how to do that!’”
The house was quiet for what seemed like a long time. Finally, Rachel spoke again, saying, “You have heard what happened to Jesus, I know.”
Again, Reuben simply nodded. Everyone in Galilee knew what happened to Jesus, and to anyone who stood against the establishment. The crosses from Rome appeared as frequent reminders of what happened when people asked big questions. The boy didn’t know what to say, and so he was silent.
Rachel continued, “About a year after Jesus was killed, my husband Joses died when a house collapsed on him. At that point, I moved back to Nazareth. I hoped to find Mary, but she had gone to Jerusalem. I was alone.”
The enormity of that struck Reuben – he, who was surrounded by a large and loving family – tried to picture Rachel as a young widow with no family, no children, no means of support. He tried to think of life without his family – what it would be like to live here among the mockers, all alone. He offered, “It must have been terrible.”
“It was at first. Simply horrible. But then something happened. Something I couldn’t have imagined, and surely didn’t deserve. Jesus’ friends began to come and visit. They brought me gifts – a little food, some firewood. I noticed that the same people who used to frustrate, or anger, or disgust me were now treating me as if I was their family. They were different. I was different.”
“After a couple of months, it occurred to me that this home is bigger than I need. There are several rooms here. We began to meet regularly, every Sabbath. We remember Jesus. We share his teachings, and we try to live the way that he taught us to. We tell others about not only his death, but his resurrection. And we invite any who care to to follow us as we follow The Way.”
The boy didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t really hungry, and yet the smell of bread filled his nostrils. He surely wasn’t looking for a new religion, and yet there was a presence in the room that defied explanation.
Rachel was clearly not in a hurry. Finally, she gestured towards the table. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I’d have treated him differently in those years when I ran away”, she said. “When I think about all the time I missed…all those things he went through without his family nearby…well, I feel empty. And now, I miss him terribly. But at least his friends…my friends…our friends…still come by.”
“We’ll be having dinner soon. It’s not much – some bread, and a little wine. A young man named Mark has just arrived from Rome, where Jesus’ friend Peter is in jail. He’s brought a message. I hope you’ll stay, Reuben.”
Do you know, that was the first time in his life someone other than his family asked Reuben to share a meal. And he stayed. And his world was never the same since that day when he met Jesus’ friends…and became one of them.
It would be nice if this story ended with me telling you that Reuben’s arm was healed and he went off to serve as a priest in the Temple. But that didn’t happen.
Reuben did become a follower of The Way. He learned, and he then talked about Jesus every chance he got. He learned to break the bread and baptize people one-handed. And, so far as I know, he never stopped looking for – or loving – Jesus’ friends. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.
It’s easy to be sentimental about Christmas. We sit and we bask in the candlelight and to think about all the things that warm our hearts. We read about the innkeeper who didn’t make room for the holy family, and we swear that we’d do things differently. To quote Peter Storey,
Some tell us that following Jesus is a simple matter of inviting him into our hearts. But when we do that, Jesus always asks, “May I bring my friends?” And when we look at them, we see that they are not the kind of company we like to keep. The friends of Jesus are the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the rejected — the lepers of life.
We hesitate and ask, “Jesus, must we really have them too?”
Jesus replies, “Love me, love my friends!”
As we begin the new year, let me say that I hope you have Jesus in your heart. And it may be that as you wander through the days and months to come, you’ll catch a glimpse of Jesus. I hope so. I guarantee that you will see his friends. I promise you that you will. In the year to come, love him – and love his friends.