by Cardynal Syn
A Christmas story with an odd twist. A story of courage, forgiveness, and redemption.
Nita sat combing her hair, peering at her reflection in a small piece of polished metal. She noted with satisfaction the gleam of her jet black hair. It was her pride and joy. She spent most of her free time combing it until it shone like burnished ebony. It flowed down her back like an onyx waterfall, past her waist and halfway to her knees. Her friends would have said she was obsessed with keeping her hair clean, smooth, and straight.
She was perched on a barrel in the storeroom of an inn called the Shepherd’s Way. The Way, as the locals called it, was filled to capacity every day of late. That was an oddity, for Bethlehem was not a bustling place. At least, it wasn’t bustling until Caesar decreed his new tax. The Jews had no love for Caesar or his tax, but the owner of the Shepherd’s Way had to admit that it had been a windfall for his inn.
Sunlight filtered through the chinks in the mud that sealed the log walls of the inn. A shaft of sunlight crept across the floor, nearing the barrel where Nita sat, and she knew that soon the owner would come to fetch her off to work. She supposed she should go on out and start work without having to be told, but she dismissed the idea as quickly as it had occurred to her. More time working meant less time combing.
Nita caressed her comb, grasping the handle lovingly as she continued working on her hair. This comb was her most prized possession, having been the gift of her now-deceased father. He had painstakingly carved it from the shoulderblade of an ox and presented it as a gift for her twelfth birthday. Hours of daily use had ground every tooth, polishing them smooth like river water running over stones. The third tooth from the handle was missing, having been broken while trying to work out a particularly nasty tangle of hair. Nita loved the comb just the same.
The beam of sunlight reached the bottom of the barrel. As if on cue, a figure appeared through the doorway. It was not the owner, but his wife Naomi. She looked particularly frazzled, and her mood matched her appearance. “Get up, girl! We’re covered up out here! Are you gonna work or sit here playing with your hair all day? Come on!”
Nita sighed and slid down off her barrel. At fourteen, waiting tables was not her idea of what life should be. Still, she was lucky to have this job and she knew it. Many orphans lived a far more harsh existence. Tucking the comb inside her robe, she pasted a smile on her face and followed Naomi into the main room of the inn.
A ragged cheer went up from a few of the regulars as Nita came into view, leaving the visitors to wonder what was going on. She was well liked here, though more for her efficiency and hard work than any real notice of Nita personally. One look at the empty ale mugs on the tables told her what her first task would be.
She moved among the patrons with practiced ease, filling their cups first, then bringing them steaming bowls of thick stew and hearty chunks of bread spread thick with butter and honey. The grumbling of the crowd gradually quieted as she gave them something to do besides complain about the Roman occupation and Caesar’s tax.
The owner gave her a smile and a nod of appreciation, then gestured toward the guard at the door. Knowing the man’s tastes, she took him only water and a bowl of figs. Like the other Roman soldiers, this man, named Jaron, a Captain of the Guard, did not drink anything alcoholic while on duty. He thanked her with a curt nod as she placed the items on a shelf near the door.
In normal circumstances, there were no Roman guards posted at the inn. But, knowing that his decree would stir up the people, Caesar’s military commanders had ordered guards be posted anywhere there was a concentration of Jews. Thus it was hoped that there would be no uprisings among the conquered peoples.
The grumbling began anew as the patrons fell into their cups. “It’s not bad enough they steal our land. Now they want our blood too!” complained one young man seated near the back of the room. “Yeah! A sixth of our property? There has NEVER been a tax like that! How does Caesar expect us to survive?” added another. “What do you expect of a bunch of heathens? That’s what eating swine will do for you!” declared a third.
Jaron looked in their direction but said nothing. It was better to let them blow off steam than to let their anger build to a boiling point. And so he did nothing as long as the fussing remained at an acceptable level.
Nita began her work again, refilling mugs and clearing dishes. A young man came in then, clad in a white robe and white skullcap. The man was not a priest, though all the locals knew he tried to act like one. But the man had been born into the wrong house and thus could never be a priest, no matter how much he wished it were otherwise. Nita felt sorry for him.
Today, however, the man seemed anything but priestly. He was clearly upset about something. It wasn’t long before he joined in the complaints and grumbling against the tax specifically and Romans in general. Then he said something that got them all riled up.
“Well, the Romans aren’t part of us and aren’t bound by our law. So we can’t judge them too harshly, I suppose, since the poor devils don’t know any better. But how about some of our own people? Have you seen Joseph and his wife? They came into town a few days ago. She’s so pregnant she looks like a beached whale. She’s obviously due now, if she hasn’t had the baby already. And according to the records, they were only married seven months ago. But it’s okay for them. After all, THEY are of the house of DAVID, so they are above the law, right, boys?”
Nita’s heart leapt into her throat. She knew who these people were. Joseph and Mary had come to find lodging three days ago. There were no rooms, so the innkeeper let them stay in the manger behind the inn, where the animals were fed. It was a rough place to give birth, but it was better than the side of the road, Nita supposed.
And here was this young wanna-be priest stirring up the crowd. The attitudes toward sex had become a tiny bit more permissive lately, but the law was still the law. If the real priests pressed the issue, Joseph and Mary could be stoned for their sin. Was this man TRYING to get these people killed? The world had enough orphans already, without making the newborn baby, if it were indeed born yet, another one on the list.
Many of the men in the room stood up then. A few were of the house of David, and did not appreciate the implied accusation of favoritism toward their house. Others felt that the accusation was perfectly justified. Most of them, however, were concerned with the alleged crime. Was the speaker sure of the marriage record? Yes, he was sure. Was he sure Mary was that close to term? Absolutely he was.
Then someone made the obvious leap. “Stone them!” he cried. “It is their just penalty under the law!” A few others took up the chant. “Stone them! Stone them! Stone them!”
Jaron, hearing the disturbance, stepped outside the door and motioned to a pair of soldiers patrolling the streets. Then, with backup on the way, he rapped his spear on the floor for attention. “All right, men, simmer down! Herod will be here in a few days, and I won’t have any disturbances here to make me look bad! If you have a grievance, you can take it up with him then. But for now, just go back to your ales and pipe down!”
Two new guards appeared behind him then. Faced with not one but three spears, the men thought better of trying to force the issue, and they let it drop. Nita breathed a sigh of relief. She made up her mind right then to go check on them as soon as her work was done.
Eventually the locals went home for the night, and the visitors went upstairs to their rooms. Still Nita worked, clearing tables, washing dishes, and mopping floors. The owner and his wife retired long before Nita was finished, having started their work before her. Finally she was done. She gathered two bowls and filled them with steaming hot stew. Then she took a large chunk of bread, broke it, and spread the halves thick with butter and honey. All of this she put on a tray, and then she slipped out the back door nearest the manger.
She found Joseph and Mary still in the stable, with their newborn baby. Mother and baby were asleep, but Joseph was still awake. Nita placed the tray on the corner of a feed trough, then handed him a bowl. “I see both mother and child survived the birthing. That is good,” she said.
“It is good, indeed. Surely God is with us,” replied Joseph.
Nita looked toward Mary, sleeping soundly, and then to the baby, also asleep. A feeling of peace came upon her. And then a second perception. A wave of holiness, as though she were standing on sacred ground. Nita reached down and removed her sandals.
Joseph smiled at her, and she noticed for the first time that his feet were likewise bare. Nita marveled at what a holy man Joseph must be to have such an aura. For surely it must be coming from him. He was the only one awake.
She looked at the baby again. What a head of hair the child had! His head was covered in masses of black curls in complete disarray. She took out her comb and tried to straighten the mess, but she could only get to part of his hair without picking him up. She was unwilling to move the baby lest she wake him.
Nita thought about giving him her comb. She paused for a moment, considering. And then there was that feeling of peace again. Another wave of holiness washed over her. It was decided. She handed the comb to Joseph, saying, “Keep it for him. Let it be his comb.”
Joseph thanked her and put the comb in his robe.
Then Nita spoke again. “I came to bring you food, but also a warning. There were many men in the inn this night who wanted to stone you. They will likely go to the priests today. They said this child was conceived out of wedlock. Whether he was or was not is none of my concern. All that matters is that you are happy and healthy. But if you would like to remain happy and healthy, you might wish to move on from here as soon as you can.”
“We will leave at first light, then,” replied Joseph. “And I thank you for coming to us. You have done us a great service.” He moved a few steps to where a cloth bag was hanging on the wall. Reaching inside, he took out a carved alabaster box, about the size of both his hands held together. “Yesterday there were three men here. They came from a faraway land, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is the box of myrrh. Please take it for yourself.”
Nita stood in shocked silence. The finely carved box itself was worth a fortune, and myrrh was the most costly perfumed ointment there was. She opened the lid of the box slightly. The scent of the perfume was heavenly. No wonder it costs so much, she thought. Then she opened the lid fully, and was astonished to find a gold coin atop the ointment. “What is this?” she asked.
“Oh, it must have all spilled together in the bag,” Joseph said. “Look, there are a few grains of frankincense in it too.”
Nita picked out the coin and wiped it on her robe, then held it out to Joseph. But he would not take it, saying, “There is more here in this bag than we will ever need. Keep it for yourself. And thank you again for your service.”
As Nita walked back to her storeroom in the inn, she could not believe her good fortune. A GOLD piece! One gold piece exchanged for a whole pile of silver, and a silver piece for a pile of copper. This was more money than she had ever seen in her life, let alone possessed. It was easily more than she would earn in a year waiting tables.
And then she considered the family she had helped. A most curious family, to be sure. Not even the high priest had an aura of holiness and peace like that. She was still awake, thinking on these things, when the first light of dawn appeared on the eastern horizon. Nita saw the reddish orange light outside through a chink in the wall. She saw Joseph and his family starting down the road. She wished them well.
32 years later
Nita hurried down the narrow street, taking care to avoid the mud puddles and heaps of dung that littered the path through the poor side of Jerusalem. Disasters aplenty lay in wait to befall the unwary traveler here, but she was no stranger to the alleyways. This was her home: the seedy side of town where beggars cast lots for the alms they had collected. Thieves sold their stolen goods from the shadows of the dilapidated buildings that lined the streets. Wealthy merchants, drunken soldiers, and a few of the town’s religious leaders came here too. They came to hire prostitutes. They came to see Nita.
Prostitute. Harlot. Whore. The names still hurt Nita, though they had lost a bit of their sting with the years of hearing them. She thought about her life as she picked her way through the narrow streets. How HAD she managed to drift so far astray of the lessons of her childhood?
As her mind drifted back, she unconsciously patted her robe, ensuring that the exquisitely carved alabaster box was still with her. She had carried it every day for the past 32 years. Indeed, that’s when her life had been shaped, on the day she received that box.
It had all begun with the travelers she had befriended when she was just coming of age, she recalled. Joseph and Mary. And the baby, of course, though she had no idea how the child was called. She had taken them food and given them warning. And the captain of the Roman guard, who was that night posted at the door of the inn, had also helped the family, although for very different reasons. Still, a most peculiar bond was formed between the two. A bond that had eventually led to marriage. A union of Nita the Jew and Jaron the Gentile, Captain of the Roman Guard.
Theirs had been a troubled life, as they had known it would be. The Jews rejected Nita because she had sullied herself with a Gentile. The Gentiles rejected Jaron because he had sullied himself with a Jew. Fortunately, Roman military discipline prevented his countrymen from taking his job. While his comrades were not happy to be serving with this perceived traitor, they nonetheless respected his position and obeyed his orders. Hard work, attention to detail, and a reputation for fairness eventually made most of them overlook his marital choice.
Being a captain in the army provided a decent living, if not extravagant, and the couple was able to build a small home where they were blessed with two sons, Selmet and Cornelius. The children had also found life hard, being of dual heritage. Jaron and Nita sheltered them as best they could, but society was cold and unforgiving. The elder son Selmet became a fisherman. The sea cared not of the heritage of those who rode the tides, and the fishmongers at the docks cared only about the catch. The younger son Cornelius, twelve years Selmet’s junior, dreamed of becoming a captain of the Roman guard like his father.
And then it happened. Two couriers, bearing the seal of the Roman Emperor, came to tell of the death of Jaron, lost in combat in service of the Empire. And Nita’s life crumbled around her. Now she was a single parent, trying to raise a six-year-old on her own. Her elder son was no help, having fallen more in love with strong drink than with responsibility. And so she was left to provide for her son as best she could. She, who was rejected by Jew and Gentile alike. Employment opportunities were few for a female in her position. She took a position as laundress for a sympathetic Jewish family. But when that family was threatened with expulsion from the temple for having contact with Nita, her job was lost.
And so, bearing heavy responsibility and with no other choice, Nita became a prostitute. She cried herself to sleep every night for a year, but she never let Cornelius see. She had lost her husband to the wars, and one son to the wineskins. This was her last chance. She would not fail this son.
But what a toll her decision had taken on her soul! Most of the priests wouldn’t receive her sacrifice because of her marriage to a Gentile. And the few priests whose greed for her coin surpassed their bigotry now had a second reason to deny Nita. Prostitution was a deliberate sin, consciously committed, and not merely a mistake. She had been unable to make sacrifice for atonement for many years.
And so she hurried along the alleyways to her destination. A man named Jesus was said to be visiting the home of one of the Pharisees. She knew of this Jesus. She had been one of the five thousand who listened to his teachings and partook of the great feast of bread and fish. Surely God was with him. Perhaps he could tell her how she might seek atonement for her sins.
She also knew of this particular Pharisee. Pharisees there were who had used Nita’s services, but Simon was not one of them. He was devout. He had a reputation for impeccably righteous living, and Nita knew it was well earned. Never had anyone been able to lay any blame at Simon’s feet.
The buildings became more and more ornate as Nita made her trek through the town. Run-down wooden houses gave way to those in good repair. Soon the newer wooden homes gave way to buildings made of stones cobbled together with crude mortar. And then came the homes of the most elite and wealthy, which were made of huge marble blocks, hewn by hand to fit together perfectly with no need for mortar. It was to one of these marble homes that Nita went.
Arriving at the door of the home, Nita paused to listen. She had expected a conversation, but only one man was speaking. The man spoke in a cultured, polished voice. He spoke of his great deeds for the temple, and of the self-inflicted punishments he had endured in the name of God. Nita knew that voice did not belong to Jesus. She had heard Jesus speak before, and his voice was somewhat rough, the voice of a common man.
Nita gathered her courage and burst through the door. She was halfway across the room before Simon leapt to his feet. “YOU!” he shrieked. “Get out! Guards!”
Nita paid him no mind at all, running to the chair where Jesus sat and falling at his feet. Two armed men ran into the room, looking to where Simon pointed at the woman. But before they could lay hands on her, Jesus spoke. “She is with me.”
The guards stopped in confusion and looked to Simon for direction. His face creased in a broad grin, and he held out his hands in a gesture of conciliation. “A guest of my guest is my guest,” he said. “Please be welcome in my home. Servants! Prepare a place at table for my guest!”
But Nita heard none of his words. She had been prepared to speak quickly with Jesus, because she had known she would be thrown out. She longed to ask him where she might seek atonement for her sins. But in his presence, she found she could not find the words to speak. She became aware of an aura of sanctity that permeated the entire area. Whether from Jesus or from the Pharisee, she knew not. But it was real, heavy, thick in the air. Holiness washed over her in waves.
And she began to weep bitter tears of sorrow for her life of sin. Her tears flowed like rain, running down her face and dripping onto Jesus’ feet. And still she cried.
Simon watched the scene from his place at the head of the table. He wore the mask of the perfect host, but inwardly he rejoiced, for he knew he had the evidence to discredit Jesus once and for all. If this man were truly a prophet, he thought, he would know what kind of woman this was. No holy man of God would claim such a person as his guest. Neither would he allow these crocodile tears, which were obviously the only sort of weeping one such as Nita could muster. No, Jesus might be a master illusionist, able to deceive the masses with his “miracles”, but he was definitely NOT sent by God.
Nita saw how her tears flowed onto Jesus’ feet, making little tracks of mud in the dust that clung to his feet from the road. Oh what a mess she was making! She had to clean it up before he noticed! She dared not reach for a cloth from the table. Simon would accuse her of theft, she was certain. And so she wiped his feet with the only thing available: her hair. Her long, flowing hair of which she was so proud, which she spent hours every day combing. Somehow it mattered not at all. All that mattered was cleaning up the muddy mess she had made before Jesus saw it. He could tell her where she might seek atonement, she hoped. But not if he was angry with her. She continued blotting the mess from his feet. And still the tears flowed, constantly erasing any progress she was making.
Jesus perceived the thoughts of Simon, and posed a hypothetical question for the Pharisee to answer. “Simon, there were two men who owed the same master. One owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had no money to pay, the master forgave their debts. So tell me, which of them will love the master more?”
Simon thought for a moment, making sure of his answer, that he was not fooled by a trick question. While he thought, Nita continued her work on Jesus’ feet. Her tears had finally run dry, and yet she continued her lament, as the waves of righteousness continued their assault on her mind. She finally had his feet mostly clean. She gave them a final wipe with her hair, then reached into her robe and took out the alabaster box.
The reddish-tinted ointment inside the box was thick as jam. Myrrh, Joseph had called it. Nita savored the aroma of the oily balm, its potent scent a blend of sweetest spice mixed with the fragrance of the deepest forest. She scooped up a bit of the ointment and began rubbing it into Jesus’ feet.
Simon watched Nita’s efforts as he thought about the question Jesus had posed. Satisfied that there was no trickery, he replied with the obvious answer. “The one who owes the most. He will love the master more.”
Jesus replied, saying “You have judged correctly.” Then, gesturing to Nita, he continued. “See this woman? When I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears. You gave me no kiss, but she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven.”
Then Jesus helped Nita to her feet and said, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Nita was dumbfounded. Forgiven! How had he even known why she sought him? And by whose authority did he say she was forgiven?
Jesus picked up the forgotten box and gave it to Nita. Then he reached into his robe and produced a comb. It had been carved of bone and was worn smooth with much use. He put the comb in her hand and said, “Take this also. You may have need of it.”
Nita looked at the comb and her face went white. And once again she found she could not speak. But Jesus just smiled at her and said, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
She stumbled out the door and into the street. A passing Pharisee shook his head in disgust, assuming she was drunk. As Nita made her way back home, she had much to think on. She looked at the comb again. It was indeed missing the third tooth. She held it in her hand as if she were combing her hair. The tiny indentions in the handle, worn there by countless hours of use, matched her grip exactly. There was no denying it. This was her comb, the one her father had made for her all those years ago. She had given it to Mary to use on her baby. The baby whose name she did not know. Could it be? She remembered that night in the stable behind the inn. She remembered the feeling of holiness that had surrounded the family. And she felt that same holiness again today. This man Jesus had to be the baby she had seen in the manger. She smiled as she put the pieces together. Nita continued walking toward home.
And then the truth dawned on her in a blinding flash of insight. Holiness surrounding a baby? This was the Messiah! This was Holy God! She, the most unworthy sinner of all, had been forgiven by God Himself!
Nita fell to her knees, unable to continue. How had she of all people found forgiveness? One thing she knew: her life of prostitution was behind her. She would find another way. This she swore on her honor. God had touched her life. That was plain to see. She would trust Him to help her provide for her son.
She stood then, a changed woman. She started walking toward home. Out of habit she patted her robe, making sure the box was still there. It was gone! She turned around and saw it, maybe ten feet away, where she had fallen to her knees. It must have come out then. She hurried back to it. With a sickening feeling, she realized that the lid had come open and dirt from the road was in the myrrh.
Nita began picking out the pieces of dirt as best she could with her fingers, wiping the contaminated myrrh on her robe. What a mess! She dug deeper into the ointment, scooping the clean to one side and the ruined to the other. Then she saw what reminded her of the grains of frankincense Joseph had showed her. These she picked out too. Then, using two fingers like a spoon, she scooped out the dirty ointment and tossed it to the ground.
Nita inspected the myrrh, looking closely for any remaining dirt. There! She saw something deep in the ointment. How had dirt got all the way in there? She dug a hole in the ointment to remove it. But it was not dirt. It was a gold coin. She pried it out with a fingernail. And in the space beside it was the edge of another coin. She dug it out too. And when she was finished digging, there were five gold coins in her hand.
And so she began again, walking toward home, rejoicing. The precious ointment, sent to Jesus, she had used on Jesus, thus unwittingly completing the delivery. Then God, in His mercy, had seen fit to use the gift of the Magi to save her. It seemed this was indeed a time of miracles.