by Mary Rhudy
My telling of the legend of how cats got the "M" on their foreheads.
By Mary Rhudy
There is a legend that says that the reason all cats have a very clear "M" on their foreheads is that a cat befriended the Holy Family and comforted the baby Jesus. And when The Blessed Virgin petted the cat on its head, an "M" formed in its fur, and it has been there ever since.
Judea, in Israel, is a desert region, but at night, even in the summer, the temperatures can drop quickly and it can get very cold. When the sky is clear, as it was on one special night some 2000 years ago, it can get even colder still. On this one night, the sky was so clear that three wise men traveling from their far off country were able to see a single massive star that guided them to the most unlikely place for them to seek. It was a night that would change lives forever.
On that night, a young couple was just arriving in Bethlehem after a journey of twelve long days of travel during which they had faced hunger and sleeping on the ground and avoiding robbers. The man's name was Joseph, and he was a carpenter. The woman's name was Mary, and in her womb she carried the King of Heaven.
The town was full to overflowing with thousands of people who, like them, had traveled to Bethlehem to pay the taxes levied by the Roman government. All the rooms and rooftops and places to set up tents on the ground were already taken. A kind innkeeper let the young couple take shelter in his stable for the night, because he saw that they were very tired. But more important, Mary was about to deliver her baby.
As in any place where lots of people live, there were also lots of pets, and whenever there are lots of pets, there will be some that go off to live on their own. As it happened, there was a large grey-striped tabby cat living in the stable where Mary and Joseph took shelter. The cat had gotten so large by eating rats and snakes that came into the barn to steal grain and chicken eggs. He didn't like people and would bite and scratch anyone who tried to touch him. The innkeeper offered to try to get rid of him, but Mary said, "He's cold, too, Please let him stay." And so he stayed.
Sometime after midnight, Mary delivered her baby, and dried him off with some clean straw and, having wrapped him in warm cloths, laid him in the hay manger on a bed of fresh hay. Even though she had wrapped the baby so warmly, though, he was still cold. The cat looked down at the family from his perch high on the loft, and pondered. He didn't like most humans, because they had always been mean to him and he had even been beaten many times by the people he used to live with. As he looked down at this family and at the small human in the manger, something in his heart told him that this family was different.
He climbed down from his loft and slowly walked towards the manger. He didn't go too close at first. He just walked back and forth making his way closer with each pass and sniffed to see what he could learn from the smells. He had lived in this barn for years, and he thought he knew every scent it held, but there was a new scent tonight. Tonight he could smell a clean fresh fragrance he remembered from the flower sellers in the market. He kept creeping closer.
As he got close to the manger, Joseph startled from his sleep and the cat jumped back, but Mary held out her hand to him, and he sensed no danger. He came to her and smelled her hand. Then he walked up to the manger and stuck his head over the edge to see the small human inside. This was where the beautiful scent was coming from. But the human was shivering as if he was cold. Without thinking, the cat climbed up into the manger and curled himself around the baby. The baby was very small and the cat was very big, so he was able to wrap himself almost all around the baby's head and sides. The baby was warmed by the cat's body and fell asleep with a smile on his face. Mary petted the cat's head and he began to purr for the first time in years.
As the days passed the cat guarded the family fiercely from the rats and snakes that tried to take shelter in the barn, and every night he would curl up in the manger with the baby to keep him warm. One night he was called to guard his new family as he had never guarded them before.
Earlier in the day, three men in fine robes had come to pay their respects to the new baby and to leave gifts for him. They also brought a warning. The evil king of Judea wanted to kill the new baby and would stop at nothing to do this. The family must leave that night and go to Egypt or they would die.
As the family was packing their belongings for the long journey, they heard the king's soldiers sweep down into the city and begin their night of terror. They heard the screams of mothers as the soldiers murdered their sons. Joseph put Mary and the baby Jesus up on the back of the donkey, but as he reached for the cat, he ran from him and towards the sounds of horror coming from the heart of the city. It worried Joseph to leave the cat behind, but he had to look for his family's safety, and so he left by another street that led toward the edge of town.
The cat looked back towards his new family. He wanted to run with them, but he knew he had a very important job to do. As the soldiers came down the side street towards their barn, he jumped up and attacked their horses tearing at their legs with his powerful claws and teeth. Soon other street cats smelled the fight and joined in. The cats caused such turmoil with the horses that they brought the soldiers to a halt as they fought to regain control of their huge animals. Soon, however, the soldiers did regain order and rode off down the alley. The cat's foot had been stepped on by one of the horses, and he had gotten some scratches and had lost a chunk off of one ear in the fight, but he was still alive. He only hoped that he had held them off long enough for his new family to escape.
As the street cleared, he began to make his way down the alley following the beautiful fragrance that he knew must be the small human. His foot was broken, and his whole body hurt from the effort of the fight, but he knew he must reach his family to make sure they had escaped.
Joseph and Mary could hear the terrible noise from the city for some miles as they made their way towards the border with Egypt. They had heard the soldiers heading towards their barn as they escaped, and they were sure that they would be over taken as the soldiers had powerful war-horses and they were traveling only on a donkey. As they traveled further on and realised that the soldiers were no longer following them, Mary looked back and a look of worry came across her face. Could that be why their cat had left them so suddenly?
When Joseph knew that they were far enough out of town on a back road where they would be safe, he stopped and set up camp for the night. As he and Mary sat down for their simple meal of smoked fish and bread given them by a lady at the inn, they gave thanks to God for their escape and prayed that their cat would be safe. And then they settled down to sleep.
Soon they heard a rustling in a rosemary bush near their camp. Mary awoke and saw their cat struggling to walk towards her. She ran to him and scooped him up in her arms crying to see him so bloodied and sore. She took one of the smaller cloths she had wrapped around the baby Jesus, and she poured some of their precious water on it and washed the cat's wounds clean. As she washed him the baby Jesus reached out and touched his head. Suddenly the air was filled with the fragrance of flowers and incense, and as Mary and Joseph watched, the cat's wounds began to heal and the bones in his foot mended themselves. Even the chunk that had been bitten out of his ear by another cat grew back. But one thing was different about him now. Where before on his head their had just been striped fur, there was now an "M" from where Mary had been petting him and washing his wounds.
As Mary watched this miracle, she gave thanks to God and blessed the cat saying, "My dear and precious guardian, I name you Michael, for you have done battle for the Kingdom of God and for your Saviour." Michael rubbed against her purring loudly and then walked over to the baby and curled himself around him and went to sleep secure in the knowledge that he had done his job well.
And from that time forward, there is an "M" on the foreheads of all cats to remember the cat who fought for the Kingdom of God and protected the baby Jesus and his family.