The Lily Of Israel By The Abbe Gerbet. Part 4.


MARY, who had, even before her birth, been the harbinger of such peace and joy, continued to bestow happiness on those who approached her. She was the delight of all, as well as of her father and mother—gentle, mild, beautiful, seeming to glow with heavenly warmth and sweetest perfume. Even strangers—few as they were—coming near her, felt a wondrously strange exaltation of the heart, felt every ugly passion dissipated, felt their thoughts turning, almost magically, to the God of heaven and earth. Her face was delicately oval; her eyes a large and lustrous azure; her hair a warm reddish chestnut. The predominant beauty was, of course, her expression, which was so mild and pure that people lingered near her to watch her, or to hear her talk.

Though but a child, she did not resemble other children. Those clear eyes were filled with something else besides the wonder of infancy; something deep and profound and serious. Anne, at whose knee she stood, imbibing precious lessons from Holy Writ; Joachim, who held her in his arms while he read from the sacred scrolls, felt this depth of understanding, which was so unusual, and yet, from Mary, not altogether unexpected. If she gathered flowers in the fields, if she dipped her fingers into the rippling waters of the brook, if she watched the clouds that drifted across a heaven as blue as her own beautiful eyes, if she fed and cared for a tiny fledgling fallen too soon from its nest, she seemed to be reading wonders in nature's book that were too deep for words. Trained by such pious parents, and endowed with a marvelous inner knowledge, Mary frequently knelt and returned thanks to the great Creator, a Being so magnificent even in the smallest of His works.

She was wonderfully, innocently happy. Then came the first faint shade of thought and sorrow. One day, her hands filled with radiant blossoms, she was walking slowly toward the fields when she saw, seated at the roadside, a little companion, who was now weeping bitterly. Instantly Mary's heart was filled with tenderness.

"What is the matter? Why do you weep?" she questioned.

"My mother is dead," said the child, between her sobs.

"Dead?" Mary, the cherished daughter of Anne and Joachim, had never seen death. The words of the child troubled her, and though she put her arms about her and consoled her as only Mary could, she did not continue on her way, but, when she had dried the falling tears, went back to her own house and her mother. She began to question. Anne told her anew of the Fall of Adam and Eve—and of their punishment, which the human race had inherited. The child Mary turned pale and trembled, realizing the meaning of pain and death and sorrow, of labor and fruitless toil and poverty!

And then Anne went on to relate the wonderful promise which had been made—the promise of a Redeemer, the hour of whose coming, according to all the prophecies, was even now approaching.

"How good God is! How good God is!" Mary exclaimed, clasping her hands in a transport of joy.

Anne looked at her lovingly. What happiness to be near her! Then came a feeling of sadness. How unworthy she and Joachim were to possess such a treasure! And later, when recounting this experience to her spouse, her hands trembled.

"It would not surprise me if she were taken from us," she said, in broken accents. Joachim looked at her strangely, but did not reply. "Her manner is almost angelic—whenever I approach her I feel such awe and respect— " And her eyes were suffused with tears.

With great tenderness Joachim pressed her hand, though he did not utter a word, and instead of going back to his work he went into the inner room, where, falling on his knees, he prayed, returning thanks to God. For Mary was so plainly marked by the divine favor that he could only ask to be enlightened as to the Lord's will concerning her. It was just as Anne said. No ordinary child could be so like a child descended from heaven. She did not seem of earth, but, rather, walked "in the way of justice, in the midst of the paths of judgment," (Prov, viii. 20.) and her whole time was spent in pleasing her parents and in singing praises to God, the while her busy fingers assisted in all the details of housekeeping within her strength.

One day, while thus employed, she chanted a little canticle in honor of the Most High. Joachim overheard. He listened, much moved, and drew to one side, with head bent upon his breast. At once Anne became alarmed, for the slightest shade of uneasiness shown by her beloved spouse affected her also.

"What is the matter, my dear husband?" she asked.

"Anne," said Joachim, "a certain idea has long been with me, and now I must put it into words. This child, whose advent occasioned us such happiness, this child, who was given to us almost at the close of our lives, has only been lent to us by the Lord. She is His. We must restore her to Him."

Anne turned pale.

"She must be consecrated to the Temple," went on Joachim, vainly endeavoring to strengthen his tones.

Anne clasped her hands tightly.

"Alas!" she said. "I knew! Every day I feared that you would say this, and every night thanked God that the time was not yet. I even ventured to hope that the Lord would call me to Himself before manifesting His will by your lips. But oh, Joachim, have you thought what will become of us when we have lost this precious jewel, our delight and our glory?"

Mary's voice was silent in the room adjoining. She was on her knees, they knew, and Anne, fearing that the sobs she could not restrain would be overheard by her child and distress her, drew her veil over her head and went to the open doorway. Seating herself, she gave way to her tears. Joachim followed; leaning against one of the posts, and looking at his wife sorrowfully, but not attempting comfort, for he knew the grief of her heart. Presently the child Mary, coming from her devotions, noticed the sadness of her father's countenance. Her mother's sobbing, too, reached her ears.

"Mother, dearest mother!" exclaimed Mary, going to her. "Why are you weeping? What has befallen?"

"Naught," returned her mother, gently putting her veil from her face. '' But I sorrow over what is to come."

Mary tenderly wiped the tears from her cheek, and kissed her.

"What do you tell me always? Shall I repeat the words?" She put her arms about her. "'We are sent upon earth joyfully to accomplish the will of God.' Oh, mother, is not this your word? And yours, father?" She turned to comfort Joachim now, who could not endure the sight of his beloved child and her sorrowing mother.

The last rays of the setting sun had departed from the summit of Carmel, and the majestic shadow of the mountain extended through the valley, concealing the beauty of the twilight. Just so had grief cast its shadow over their hearts, eclipsing all their joy. Mary took Joachim's hand, her other hand clasping that of her mother. Drawing both closer together, she laid her forehead upon them as a token of respect.

And Anne explained to the child Mary the cause of her own trouble and the affliction of Joachim. Mary listened. Then falling upon her knees, she pointed to the heavens.

"Mother! Father!" she exclaimed. "God, who has put this thought into your hearts, will give you strength to endure the pain it brings."

Before her serene, untroubled gaze Anne's heart seemed relieved of its heavy burden. She wiped away her tears, murmuring: "Rather Should I not rejoice at being the mother of such a child? Ought I not to submit without repining to the sacrifice demanded of me?"

With her hand in Mary's she prayed silently. Joachim knelt, and with his arm about his beloved child, prayed also. The sun, as if loath to depart ouched the summit of Mount Carmel with a spear of glory. It was almost like an omen of the blessing of God.

A few days later Anne and Joachim set out for Jerusalem, taking Mary with them.

* * * * *

Their relatives and neighbors wished to accompany them, for without knowing the lofty destiny of Mary, her consecration to the service of the Temple reflected an honor on the family of which they were very proud. The rainy season had commenced, which meant that the journey would be tedious and uncomfortable, and the roads difficult.

The travelers, mounted on strong horses, proceeded like a caravan, skirting first the base of a lofty hill, covered with broad-leaved fig-trees, dark mastics, and yellow-hued pomegranates. A forest of verdant oak served to shelter them from the rain, for the sun, gleaming brightly when they left Nazareth, had long been hidden. The horizon was dark with heavy clouds, and in the plain the rain was falling, gleaming like silver as it descended. At this point the valley of Nazareth is enclosed by mountains, and Mount Carmel, whose rugged peak forms, on the left, a strong and lofty wall. Brooks had become torrents, and these torrents had overflowed their banks. The River Cison had swelled and inundated the country— just as it had done long years before when Sisara and his troops were defeated. The roads were deluged. It was necessary to take a roundabout course, and then proceed by rough and difficult paths. But when they began to descend, they found—as happened frequently in this climate—warm and gentle breezes prevailing, and all the fragrant odors of spring. The Great Sea, the Mediterranean, flowed in solemn beauty below, and the horizon was aflame with gold and scarlet and silver.

"Oh!" exclaimed the child Mary.  "If our Creator has made the earth so beautiful for us now, what must it have been before the Fall?"

And the thoughts of her heart soared to heaven. On these heights she seemed so much closer to Him.

The journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem is about eighty miles, and should, at most, have taken only four or five days, but it was fully a week before the travelers arrived in sight of the Holy City. They saluted it with a hymn of praise and the next day entered it by the Gate of Ephraim, going at once to the Temple.

Zachary, one of the priests of the course of Abia, a distant relative of Anne's, was then performing the priestly duties. Neither Anne nor Joachim had sent him word of their approach, but as they entered the Temple he came out to meet and welcome them.

"I expected you," he said, raising his hand in blessing. "A young messenger, beautiful as an angel of light, came before you, warning me of your arrival."

This greatly startled Anne and Joachim. They exchanged glances—and though they did not reply they felt strengthened by the thought that they had fulfilled God's will in bringing their daughter to His service. Upon presenting a child to the Temple it was customary to offer a lamb or two small doves— the last offering that of the poor—the offering also of the daughter of Joachim and Anne. They were sacrificed upon the Altar of Propitiation, in the presence of all the relatives and neighbors of the young virgin.

While the incense was burning upon the Altar of Perfumes, Anne and Joachim clasped their daughter in their arms for the last time, and all who had accompanied her gave her the kiss of peace. Then the child, bidding them an affectionate farewell, entered under the gilded square before the porch of the holy Temple, to the service of whose God she had dedicated her youth.

Glittering with gold, shining brilliantly with light, the glorious Temple stood in all its magnificence. Distant music fell upon their ears as the doors opened and closed upon that slender childish form; a delightful odor seemed to float toward them. Both Anne and Joachim were silent. No tears now. They were filled with a sense of desolation. Yes, they had made the sacrifice. They had given their child to her Creator—to the One who had bestowed her upon them! Afterward they might have joy in this thought, but now, now—their human nature gained the mastery. The earth was black and dark! What if the weather was serenely fair, the sun glittering above them, all the world smiling and peaceful? Their journey homeward was silent, tedious, mournful. Every step lagged, for they had left their hearts behind them, in the Holy City, in the Temple of the Lord!

Their friends did not intrude upon their anguish. They hastened as much as possible upon the homeward way, so that the father and mother could once more reach their abode and be alone to comfort each other, and to take up the burden of their daily lives without the fairest blossom that had, until that day, ever bloomed upon this earth. And when Anne and Joachim re-entered their lonely dwelling, now indeed a desert, they looked at each other in silence, their grief too deep for words.

If Mary had been an ordinary child, her absence would have been sufficient to plunge them into sorrow. But what must have been the loss of this gift of God, the happiness and pride of all her relatives as well as of her father and mother?

Perhaps we have experienced something like this in our own lives. Perhaps God's grace has descended upon us, illumining our hearts and souls, followed, as such rare moments are, by darkness and aridity. The pure and angelic Mary was like that ray of heavenly light; her departure left her parents plunged in gloom, She had been their radiant star.

How could they exist without her guidance?—without ever again beholding her?

Oh! If it could be our happy lot to entertain such a guest for a single day! Or to have lived for even one hour under the mild glance of the Queen of Angels! Nay, if our hearts could exist but one minute of time in her presence—could any pleasure on earth equal that pleasure? Yet Joachim and Anne had enjoyed this beautiful gift for several years. They had breathed the atmosphere of heaven, the atmosphere of innocence, peace, and purity. . . .

God had demanded her. They obeyed His will— but the trial was so great that He did not suffer them to bear it long. A very short time after the separation His kindness recalled them to Himself.