3 Words: Hotel, Complain, Royal (December 7, 2012 prompt)
by Rahn Olaso
It was the last day of my trip, and it was pouring rain. Every day before this had been bright, sparkling, and perfect, and I had spent them all in a boardroom discussing trade tariffs and delivery schedules. I had purposely scheduled my flight home a day late in order to do some Christmas shopping, and now the shale colored sky was seeking to prove that Noah’s deluge was a historical possibility.
Now that the day was here however, I was not going to fail. Tensions in this part of the world were escalating, and I might not make it back for some time, if at all. Three steps from the hotel to the taxi left me drenched, the wind making my umbrella less a help than a genuine nuisance, but at least the market was covered.
Most of my family had asked only for “something fun,” and my shopping duties to them were quickly dispatched. A handmade knife, an olive wood box, and a leather bound journal quickly found their way into my bag. My daughter however had asked for something specific. A nativity scene, and that would prove more difficult. Mostly because I despised them.
This being the Holy Land a week before Christmas there was no shortage of Nativities, most of them made in China. Many of them with Mary and Joseph and all the animals in rapturous poses, and wise men wearing more gold paint and faux jewels than a rap star. A few of them were of cats, dogs, and even black bears as the principle characters. I even found one that was of rubber ducks, and another that was an entire chess set, with the baby Jesus as king, and sheep as pawns. A limitless variety of Holy Families both inspirational and blasphemous made of everything from braided straw to refined gold, but nothing that I wanted for my daughter in her last year before college and departure from my home, perhaps forever.
“You seek something different?”
The shop keeper was old, his voice older still, with the gentle rasp of the desert in it. His beard was grey and thinner than the man himself, yet his step was quick and his gaze sharp.
“Oh, I suppose I am,” I said. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to complain, I had hoped to find a nativity for my daughter, but none of these seem right to me. I guess I am too critical.”
“A gift should always be chosen with the most severe eye. If you could tell me what these lack, I am sure I can find what you seek.”
“None of these seem real to me, they are more like caricatures, as cartoonish as the chubby man in the red suit that was invented to replace them. I don’t think any of these show what that night was like for these people.”
“You are a believer then?”
“I hope to be, at least on the good days. And you, are you a believer?”
“I am a Palestinian, and my family have been disciples of Jesus since before the children of Mohamed invaded this land, and certainly long before the Crusaders tried to take it from them.”
“Isn’t it dangerous to say so, when you live here?”
“Discipleship has never been about security. What are you hoping to find?”
Pointing to a figurine of a middle aged Mary in a spotless blue dress posing angelically I said, “She was a child, probably in her early teens. She had just spent the last few days traveling by foot and on donkey, probably in labor. She would have been exhausted beyond comprehension; her survival may have been a miracle in itself.”
Picking up a figure of Joseph leaning on a staff and gazing serenely into the distance I continued. “Does this look like a man who has just been forced to drag his pregnant wife across country, and been tossed out of every inn? A man who was just the sole attendant at her delivery? A young husband who had spent the previous six months putting up with the questioning eyes of friends and family for having married the girl in the first place?”
“And don’t get me started on the wisemen, they didn’t show up for at least a year. The only royal gift that night was the Child Himself, and the only messengers of hope were a few scraggly shepherds.”
“A moment sir, I may have what you desire.” The old man reached under his shelf and from a worn old crate produced a small figurine of fired clay. In a manger lay the virgin mother wrapped in a blanket and curled protectively around a small head just peeking out into the cold. Her face was young, drawn, and tear-stained. Her hair was unraveled and mixed with straw, yet she was still beautiful. Beside it he set another figure of clay. A young man beside a donkey with one hand full of straw where he had been grooming the animal, the other covering his face to hide his tears from the wife he felt he had failed.
“These are beautiful,” I told the old man, and asked why he didn’t display them.
“For most people Christmas is about having their problems solved. The gifts have arrived, their redemption has come, their hopes fulfilled. And I understand that, for that is the point of it after all. But for some of us who find ourselves caught in the journey, we need reminders that hope shines brightest when it seems the farthest away, and that there is often sacrifice prior to redemption. For men like you I had these commissioned.”
A little distance away he set two clay shepherds walking boldly towards the small clay family. With upturned faces and firm strides the voices of angels were still ringing in their hearts and I regretted ever calling such men scraggly.
“Thank you,” I said, “this is the gift I was looking for.”