I T was springtime and the fields of Palestine were all decked with their spring flowers. The silver gray of the olive trees shone above a sea of scarlet anemones, the tender green of the vines was as fair as the flowers themselves. Round about the little village of Nazareth spring had smiled very kindly upon the land, and buds were unfolding on every side to meet her smile. The very name of the little village meant "flowery."
There, in one of the little square houses built of white stone, a maiden was sitting sewing, and she seemed to belong to the spring and the flowers. No slender lily of the field was fairer than she, no white flower was purer than the heart of this village maiden. She was thinking happy thoughts as she sewed alone in her room that glad spring day, but she little knew that it was to be the most wonderful day of her life.
Suddenly, in the midst of her work, she felt she was not alone, and she stopped and looked up. There before her stood an angel, Gabriel, God's messenger, who was looking kindly down upon her. He called her by her name, Mary, and bade her not be afraid. But there was no fear in Mary's heart, she was not even startled. Her thoughts were so often with God that His messenger was welcome at any time.
"Hail, thou that art highly favoured," the angel Gabriel was saying, "the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."
Mary looked up, wondering. She could not understand the meaning of these gracious words, but soon the wonderful truth dawned upon her. The angel told her that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Son of God, the Saviour and King, whose name was to be called "Jesus," for He would save His people from their sins.
There was no thought of self in Mary's heart. She did not say she was only a poor maiden unfit to be the mother of the King of Heaven. She was ready for God to use her as He would; she was His handmaid ready to fulfil His will.
It was in the happy springtime that the angel brought this message to Mary, but it was in the cold dark days of winter that the angel's promise came true.
Joseph, the village carpenter, Mary's promised husband, knew all about the angel's message, for God had told him too about the coming of the King, and had bidden him be a faithful guardian to his young wife.
Together one cold winter day they journeyed up to the little hill town of Bethlehem, to put their names upon the census roll, as the Roman governor had commanded. All the people had been ordered to go to their native cities to give in their names, and both Joseph and Mary belonged to Bethlehem, the city of David, for they were descendants of the shepherd king.
It had been a long journey, and Mary was tired, although she rode upon the shaggy back of the ass which Joseph so carefully led. It was late, and the winding white road that led to the city gates was almost deserted, for they were the last travellers to come in. Already the twilight was darkening into night, and the stars began to hang out their silver lamps in the deep dark blue overhead.
At last the inn was reached, and Joseph inquired anxiously about a lodging. It was too late; every room was full, they could not possibly be taken in. Every house in the little town was crowded. The only thing to do was to shelter themselves for the night in one of the stable caves, where oxen and asses, camels and mules, were crowded together.
And it was here, in a poor stable, that very night, that Mary's Baby, the King of Heaven, was born. Such a poor welcome it seemed for a King! Only a handful of hay for His bed, only a wooden manger for His cradle, only a few swaddling bands to wrap round His little limbs, only His poor sweet mother to wait on Him, and the breath of the ox and the ass to warm Him.
But although no one in Bethlehem knew that a King had been born that night, although no bells rang out, no grand illumination marked His coming, yet His stars shone down in silent splendour, His angels sang His song of welcome, and Mary's heart was full of joy. She knew that it was God's Son she held in her arms, that the angel's promise had been fulfilled.
Outside the town, on the slopes of the hill, shepherds were watching their flocks, just as the shepherd boy David had done in the same fields long years before; and to them the herald angels sang their song, telling the news of the Baby's birth, while the golden gates of Heaven swung wide and showed the glory within.
Soon the shepherds were kneeling in the little stable, worshipping the King; and as they knelt they told the young mother of all that they had seen out on the hillside, and repeated to her the angels' message: "Peace on earth, goodwill to men."
Later on, another company of men knelt to do homage to the Baby King. They were no rough shepherds from the hills this time, but stately men in rich robes who had journeyed from a far-distant land, led by a star to the place where the young Child lay. They brought to Him precious gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and laid them at His feet; but far more precious than any gifts was the worshipping love which both they and the humble shepherds offered to God as they knelt before Mary's son, the King of Heaven.
"They saw the young child with Mary His mother."
All these wonderful happenings were treasured up in His mother's heart, and filled her thoughts as she rocked her little son in her arms. Most mothers think a great deal about the name they mean to give their babies, but Mary had no need to think of that. Long ago the angel had told her that He was to be called "Jesus;" and so as soon as it was possible, she carried Him to the great Temple, just as we carry our babies to church, there to give them to God to be His children.
It was a very common sight in the Temple to see a mother bringing her baby to the priest, while the father carried the lamb or pigeons which it was the rule to offer as a thanksgiving; and there was nothing special to mark the little company from Bethlehem as they entered the Temple, Mary carrying her Baby in her arms, and Joseph holding in his hand the basket in which were two white doves.
But there, in the Temple, two of God's servants, Simeon and Anna, were waiting to see the Baby King. They did not look for any earthly pomp or grandeur, rich robes or royal state. Simeon, the old man, knew that the poor looking woman was indeed a queen, the mother of the Lord, that the Baby she held so lovingly in her arms was the King of Heaven. So he took the child in his arms and thanked God as he called Him a light sent to lighten the whole world and to be the glory of His people Israel.
Surely this was all a happy time for the gentle mother. But there were anxious days in store for her. Herod, the cruel king, had heard of the visit of those Wise Men, and was uneasy in his mind. He knew that God had promised to send a great Deliverer, a King to rule His people; but he thought it would be an earthly king, and he feared that his throne was in danger. The Wise Men had talked of a wonderful new star which had appeared, a star which marked a royal birth, and they had gone to Bethlehem to look for the new-born King. He had bidden them come back and tell him if they found the Child. But day after day passed, and there was no sign of the return of the travellers. God had warned them that Herod was planning mischief against the Baby King, and so they had gone quietly home another way.
Full of anger, King Herod realized that he had been mocked by those wise travellers, and he determined to carry through a cruel plan. He sent his soldiers to the peaceful little town and ordered them to kill every baby in Bethlehem. In that way the Baby King could not possibly escape, he thought.
But long before the soldiers appeared, God warned Joseph, the faithful guardian, that he must take the Baby and His mother and steal secretly away from the threatened danger. And Joseph did not lose a moment. He saddled the ass, and placed Mary and the Baby carefully on its back, and then started out by night down the winding road which led to safety. The fear of the cruel king might drive them far from home, but the Baby lay soft and warm in His mother's arms, where no evil could touch Him.
All His life angels were very close to Him. It was an angel who had brought God's message to His mother that glad spring day. Angels had sung His welcome on the Bethlehem hills. It was an angel who had warned Joseph to flee away before Herod's cruel soldiers could arrive. So, surely, in that night journey and all the dangers that awaited them, angels must have hovered very close around the travellers and held the Child and His gentle mother safe in the shelter of their shining wings.