December 25, 2013

Fire in the Sky • A Story of Christmas

The hushed stillness of their hillside perch was a welcome reprieve. Now only a muted roar behind them, the bustle of crowded Bethlehem fell flat.

Marah leaned back with her hands in the cool grass and gazed down at Josiah. Even in dimmest moonlight, his young features bore uncanny resemblance to his father’s. It was unsettling and comforting at the same time.

Josiah’s chin tilted toward the dark heavens. “Mama,” he said, “Is it true about the fire?”


Sometimes Marah wondered if nine-year-old boys ever exhausted their stores of questions. Since Marah was the only adult to whom Josiah could bring his queries, she would make every effort to answer him.
“What do you mean, fire?”

Josiah looked at her in puzzlement, as if she should’ve understood right away. “The fire in the sky, Mama. The stories Papa used to tell me. The cloud in the day. The fire at night. Is it true, Mama?”

Marah’s breath caught in her chest. Things had been harder since Josiah’s father had died. Believing had been harder.

His mother’s silence a little too long, Josiah piped up again, “Mama, sometimes I wonder if the stories are really true. I think sometimes you wonder, too. I’ve never seen fire in the sky. But Papa wouldn’t have lied to us, Mama. So I think it has to be true, even though I’ve never seen it.”

Marah sighed. Tremulous words escaped her lips. “Those skies have been dark and silent as long as anyone can remember, Josiah.” An ache rose in her heart, the bitterness she normally fought to hide from her son. But tonight it was too much.

They had been happy once. From childhood, gentle Benjamin had loved Marah. He had possessed very little, but was generous with hard work and a contagious joy. Ben had been the best of husbands, and in due time he’d also lavished love on their son. Ever honoring the Shema, he had instilled the scriptures into Josiah’s heart at every chance. The family of three had relished working, saving, and planning together all year for their annual Spring trips to the temple. Though they had always expected more children to come along sooner, Benjamin and Marah were still only dreaming of little brothers and sisters for Josiah by the time he was five years old. There was joy in the dreaming, though. It could happen at any time.

Then the dream ended.

It was merely an effort to disentangle a friend from a brawl with a drunken Roman soldier. But in that one unfortunate moment, Ben was gone. For four years now, Marah and Josiah had struggled. In a swiftly arranged marriage of necessity, Ben’s distant cousin had become a harsh new husband. He did his legal duties toward them and no more. His money flowed liberally for his own pleasures and scarcely for his family’s provision. Josiah was afraid of him, and Marah had come to despise him.

When the census had been called for, Marah had begged for permission to stay behind with Josiah. The city of David might have been her new husband’s old stomping grounds, but it was a strange place to her. She longed for time alone with her son, for peace and familiarity. But that was not to be. Marah and Josiah had packed their things and trekked to Bethlehem along with the swearing, self-absorbed Judahite. No doubt he was flirting with a pretty young Jewess at this very moment, back at the overbooked inn.

Marah’s eyes flashed bitterly toward the starless sky. There was no use in pretending anymore. No use in trying to protect Josiah from her doubts. “Honestly, son, sometimes I think that even if God ever did show Himself through fire in the sky, He has certainly forgotten us now.”

A warm, tan little hand with dimples in its knuckles gently rested on Marah’s weary, chilled fingers. Josiah said nothing, but kept his hand on his mother’s, reassuringly. The child always had a way of doing exactly what his father would’ve done. Was Josiah’s persistent faith the result of youth or of Ben’s influence?

Minutes passed, maybe hours. It had to be at least midnight, but the distant hum of banter from Bethlehem continued. Marah smirked, thinking that if there were a bright side to her husband’s negligence, it was that it allowed her to steal away from the raucous city unnoticed. She cherished these tranquil moments with her son.

“Do you see that, Mama?” Josiah punctuated the silence that had fallen between them.

Marah leaned forward and scanned the horizon, but saw nothing new. She shook her head.

“Mama, over there!” Josiah jumped up, pointing out over the green fields veiled in darkness.

His mother squinted and thought she detected a growing illumination in the general direction of Josiah’s gesture.

“Mama, listen! I hear voices there, too!”

Marah heard nothing, but was captivated by the flaming brilliance that now overtook that corner of the sky. She stood also, and pulled Josiah close to her.

Marah and Josiah gazed in awe across the field. They had never seen anything like it before.

“Mama,” the boy whispered, eyes wide. “Fire in the sky.”

Marah couldn’t deny that it looked fearfully similar to the descriptions she’d heard passed down through dozens of generations—accounts of the glory of the Lord manifested as a pillar of fire. It had led their Israelite ancestors out of Egypt, signaling their salvation.

No sooner had that realization dawned than the light disappeared. Muffled thumps of fast-falling footsteps approached. “Men are coming, Mama!” Josiah said, as shadowy figures emerged from where the light had been.

Frozen, but not in fear, Marah gripped her son’s shoulder, wordlessly urging him to remain still. Five or six ragged men ran up the hill toward them. She recognized the men as shepherds, outcasts not fit for work in the city to which they hurried. Marah and her son would’ve retreated to safety if darkness and distance hadn’t shrouded them.

The shepherds cried out excitedly as they ran. Marah hoped Josiah wouldn’t understand any of their words. She’d heard about the foul language shepherds were known for, even worse than her husband’s. But her fears for the child's innocence were quickly displaced as the shepherds passed.

“Messiah. Here, in Bethlehem.” Josiah repeated their shouted words in a whisper, looking up at his mother’s bewildered expression. “They’re going to see a baby, Mama, the Messiah. What does that mean, Mama?”

Marah peered down into her son’s big brown eyes, her own amazement mirrored in them. She stroked his dark hair. Warmth filled her. The ache in her heart was replaced by something akin to mother’s intuition, an inexplicable certainty she hadn’t felt in four years.

And she knew.

“It means, son, that I was wrong. God has not forgotten us.”

Marissa Thompson, 2013