It was the night on which our Blessed Lord was born, and the angels had brought their message of peace and goodwill to the shepherds upon the lonely hillside.
The glory of that heavenly vision had left the men awed and silent as they gathered round their fire. The news of the birth of the long looked for Infant King filled their hearts so full of wonder and of joy that for a while they could not speak. But ere long they roused themselves and in low tones began to talk of what they had seen and of all that the message of the angels meant. There was surely but one thing to be done—they must set out at once to seek the new-born King. So they began to plan how they might safely leave their sheep, and to pile the fire high with dry branches that the blaze might keep away all evil beasts.
So intent were they on their preparations, and so filled with the wonder of that night, that none of them gave a thought to the little child who lay in the warm shelter of a rock close to the fire. She had been helping her father tend the sheep all day, and had crept into the bed of dry leaves to rest, for she was very tired. The shepherds never noticed her as she lay in the shadow of the rock, and even if they had, they would have deemed her far too young to understand the glorious vision of that starry night.
But the little maid had seen the opening of heaven's gates and heard the angels' message. With wondering eyes she had gazed upon those white-robed messengers of peace and listened to their words. There was much that she did not understand, but this at least she knew, that a little Baby had been born that night in the village close by, that He was the King of Heaven and had brought God's love and forgiveness to all the poor people upon earth.
Now as she lay in her warm corner watching the bright flames as they rose and fell, a little lamb nestling close at her feet for warmth, she had but one thought in her heart, How could she see this Bambino, this new-born King. Very anxiously she watched the shepherds and tried to hear what they were saying. She saw one lift a lamb in his arms, another take a home-made cheese from their little store, another a loaf of barley-bread. Then there was a movement away from the fire, and she saw they were preparing to set out down the hill. They were going to seek the King, and if she followed she would see Him too.
In an instant she had left her warm corner and was speeding after the men. Quickly and silently she crept along behind them, trying always to keep out of sight lest one of them should turn his head and bid her go home. But the shepherds were all too eager to think of aught but the wonderful quest which lay before them, and they never thought of looking back, nor did they hear the patter of small bare feet upon the frozen ground.
It was a bitterly cold night. The moon shone down on ice-bound streams and fields white with hoar-frost. Not a sound was to be heard but the soft sighing of the wind passing gently through the bare branches of the trees. Not a light was to be seen in any of the huts they passed, for every one was fast asleep. But overhead there shone a wonderful star like a silver globe of light going before them as they went. So the little company passed on, and the child kept bravely up behind, although the ground was rough and hard and sorely hurt her bare feet. It was not easy to keep pace with the men's swift stride, but she never stopped to rest until she had entered the village street of Bethlehem, and the shepherds paused before a little shed over which the silver star was shining down.
Here they halted and talked together in low tones, while the child drew aside into the shadow of the house to watch what they would do.
She saw them take out from their wallets the things which they had brought, and realised for the first time that they were presents for the Infant King. There was the loaf of barley-bread, the home-made cheese, a handful of dried fruit and the fleece of a lamb, white and soft, fit to wrap around a baby's limbs this cold wintry night. There were other things besides, but all were poor simple gifts, and the shepherds looked at the array half sadly.
"They make but a poor show," said one with shame.
"They are indeed but simple offerings," said another; "but He will understand that it is our best we give with the true love of our hearts."
"Ay, surely," said a third, "and poor though they be, they are better than nothing. It would be a sin indeed to come empty-handed to greet our King this night."
Those words fell on the listening ears of the child, and when she heard them, all hope and joy died out of her heart. She had no gift to offer. She looked down at her little empty sun-browned hands and a great sob rose in her throat. If it were a sin to go in without a gift, then she must stay outside. She had come so far and longed so greatly to see the Infant King, and now it was all no use, the sight was not for her. Perhaps if she crept near the door she might peep in when it was opened and catch if it were only a glimpse, while she herself remained unseen.
The shepherds knocked at the door and reverently bared their heads. A low sweet voice bade them enter, and the door was opened. Pressing forward, the child tried to look in. There in the soft light she saw a fair young mother with head bent low, and behind her an ox and an ass feeding from a low manger. She tried to see the Bambino, but the forms of the kneeling shepherds came between, and even as she looked, the door was shut and she was left outside.
Then it seemed as if her heart would break. She was so weary and so footsore, and all her trouble had been for nought. The King was so near, only a wall between Him and her, and yet she was not to see Him. She threw herself down on the hard gravel and buried her head in her arms, while the sobs came thick and fast and her tears made the very ground wet.
Presently the door opened and the shepherds came out with slow and reverent steps. They did not see her, for she had crept close to the wall, and when they started on their homeward way she did not move to follow them. She was too tired and sorrowful to care what became of her now.
But presently as she lay there, with the tears still dropping one by one, she started and looked closely at the ground. What were those pale-green shoots that were bursting up between the cracks of the stones? Now they were growing into glossy leaves. She held her breath with wonder, but true it was that wherever a tear had fallen and thawed the frozen earth, a bud had begun to swell. The pale-green shoots grew taller and taller, the glossy leaves unfolded and showed pink-tipped buds hanging between, which, as she gazed, opened into blossoms with petals as silver white as moonbeams upon the glistening snow.
A glad thought came into the child's sorrowful heart. Why, here was the very gift she was seeking, and she yet might see the King. Eagerly she stretched out her hands and gathered the open blossoms and pink flushed buds, with one or two glossy leaves to place around them. Then she went close to the door and timidly ventured on a very little knock. She waited, scarcely daring to breathe, but no one answered, and so putting both hands against the door she pushed it a little way open.
The Madonna was sitting in the poor stable by the little bed of hay on which the Gesu Bambino slept. She was bending over Him and softly singing a lullaby, her eyes still shining with quiet joy over the thought of the wondrous tale told her by the simple shepherds. Suddenly a draught of cold air came sweeping in, and she turned her head to see who had opened the door. A little child stood there with flushed cheeks on which the tears were scarcely dry. Wistful eyes were raised to hers, and two small hands held out a bunch of snowy blossoms.
The Madonna needed no words to tell her what it meant. Her mother-heart understood at once what the little one wanted. Very gently she drew her in and led her to the little manger-bed and bade her lay her flowers there in the little, helpless hands of the new-born King. The child knelt and gazed at the sleeping Bambino. She forgot her tiredness and weary feet, she forgot her tears and disappointment, and she dimly felt that the happiness that filled her heart would live on and on for ever.
And now when winter-time comes and the days are dark and the nights are long, when the snow covers up all the sleeping flowers and the Christmas bells ring out, the white blossoms of the child's flowers appear above the cold, dark earth. We call them the Christmas roses now, in memory of the little one who had no other gift to offer that first Christmas morning, but the gift of her sorrowful tears.