CHAPTER I. AT NAZARETH
HIDDEN away among the hills of Galilee, in a small hamlet called Nazareth, there lived, over two thousand years ago, an elderly couple named Anne and Joachim.
Though devout and God-fearing, they had experienced many vicissitudes. Good fortune was more stranger than friend to them. Storms destroyed their harvests, and their carefully-tended vines repaid them scantily for their time and labor. They were poor, indeed.
But when men and women love God they do not fear the evils of this world. Anne and Joachim never lamented over their poverty. They had a keener grief by far—the keenest that could befall people of their race: they were childless.
Anne, perhaps, felt the deprivation most. It was a time when all Israel thrilled with expectancy of the Messias who had been promised to God's chosen nation. According to the old Jewish Law,, Joachim would have been permitted to take another wife, but Anne was far too dear to him. In her youth he had loved her for her surpassing beauty, and during the years of their wedded life he had found this loveliness of feature equalled only by her loveliness of soul. So it was that no word of repining ever passed his lips—either over their lack of children, or their poverty. For the Lord, he told himself, had given him a noble-hearted woman, a true wife, a helpmate—and for the rest "if we have received good things at the hand of God why should we not receive evil?" (Job ii, 1o.) adding, "Who can oppose Him, and be at peace ?"
So their days were chiefly given to toil, to prayer, and to good deeds, and their sorrow lessened as the years went by. It was God's will, and they bowed to His wise decrees.
But the Almighty Creator could not look unmoved on such complete submission. Perhaps He had but tested them; perhaps their meekness pleased Him; perhaps He had wished to prepare them through years of waiting for the splendid joy that was still to be theirs. Anne, fearful and doubting, at first would not believe. Then she could not, dared not. Rather, she tried to persuade herself that she was mistaken, that such a thing was impossible, since she was already old.
One day—her mind filled with doubts and conjectures and misgivings for which she could find no words—she and Joachim were seated in the garden close to their little home. The heavy shade of an ancient sycamore tree protected them from the rays of the sun. Husband and wife were both busy sorting seed for the sowing time, Anne blowing the chaff from each little kernel and putting the seeds in her tunic. They had thus been engaged for over an hour. It was very quiet and still; all nature seemed drowsy. There was no sound save that of their own voices and these were only to be heard occasionally.
Suddenly, to Joachim's astonishment, his wife rose to her feet.
There was a wondering expression on her face, a light of sudden joy. Her tunic escaped from her clasp, and raising her hands toward heaven, she sank upon her knees, and lifted her countenance, which seemed to glow anew with the beauty of her youth.
"My God, I thank Thee! My God, I bless Thee!" she whispered. "All praise and joy be Thine. Thou hast heard the prayers and pleadings of Thy servants!" And then she turned toward Joachim. "Rejoice with me, my husband," she said, the tears streaming down her cheeks, "for God has at last deigned to pour out His benedictions upon this household."
In this way did Joachim learn of the unexpected blessing which had been bestowed upon them. He joined with Anne in prayer, his soul praising the Most High.
Soon other signs of heavenly favor surprised him and excited his admiration. In every place Anne visited it seemed as if joy and hope and peace attended her. She carried with her a secret blessing. It had been her habit always to visit the sick. Now, when she entered a sick-room the one who was ill forgot his woes, or felt that they were relieved. She had been accustomed to go to those in any way afflicted. When she approached them now their anguish was alleviated; peace and submission to God's will followed, so that their trouble seemed lighter at once, and easier to bear. If dissension arose among her neighbors and Anne went to settle their differences, her voice fell like oil on troubled waters, and enemies became friends.
The wife of Joachim had ever been a modest, gentle, simple woman, content to do what good she could, though never possessing, ere this, so strange and wonderful a gift of peace and propitiation. No one marveled at it more than she. She could but conclude that some hidden source of virtue was at work within her. Joachim, too, felt that Anne had changed in some unaccountable manner.
"Undoubtedly it is due to her new happiness," he thought at first. But it appeared odd that personal happiness could so speedily assuage the sorrows and afflictions of others. He began to consider her carefully. It seemed as if all this emanated from-some strong and holy influence.
"What is happening, Anne?" he asked her one day a few weeks later, in the privacy of their own little dwelling. "The more I observe, the less I understand. Can you 'account for these strange things?"
And he told her all that had been noted by him for some time past.
Both remained silent when he finished. Anne's eyes were cast down, her hands lying quietly in her lap. At last, lifting her head, she gazed into Joachim's face.
"Do you remember these words, Joachim, my husband? 'Give praise, O thou barren, that bearest not; sing forth praise, and make a joyful noise, thou that didst not—'" (Isaias liv, I.) She hesitated.
"What is your meaning, Anne?" demanded Joachim.
"The time is approaching," she said, in a hushed, reverent tone. "And, as you frequently say to me, the world is in expectation. The weeks predicted by Daniel are hastening to their close. The people of God, relying upon His promises, raise their eyes to heaven . . . listening . . . hoping . . ." Her voice trembled. "Does not our faith say to us, 'A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a scepter shall spring up from Israel. Out of Jacob shall He come that shall rule'?" (Numb, xxiv, 17, 19.)
Joachim continued to gaze steadily at his wife. "You are of the race of Jacob; you are the descendant of Jacob through your grandfather, Nathan." Again she paused, and her heart began to beat violently, yet she took courage to conclude in a low voice: "If it should be!"
But Joachim's face was stern.
"Anne, you have not rightly considered the words of the prophecy. If you had, you would know they cannot apply to us," He took up a scroll from a bench near him, and turning it over, found at last the place he sought. "Here you may read: 'Many are the children of the desolate, more than of the married wife, saith the Lord'" (Isaias liv, I.) He laid the scroll aside, and went on gently, "Do not let us suffer pride to enter our hearts. What have we done to merit the honor of the Most High?"
Anne was silent, her humble soul reproaching her.
Nevertheless, miracles continued. Together they read the prophecies, meditated upon them, and could not understand. Much mysterious meaning escaped them. Even Joachim was at a loss. He did not know what to think. The time of harvest arrived, and singular to relate, their granaries were full, their cellars overflowing. In all their lives they had never possessed such an abundance of this world's goods.
Is it surprising that Anne should meditate on these things; should ponder over what had gone before, and what was now occurring? Her lips were silent, but deep in her heart of hearts lived a hope which she would not, dared not, express! She hoped for a son—the honor and glory to which every woman in Israel aspired. A son! Why should not this child be a son, whose coming had been preceded by such honor, such wonderful manifestations of power?
In the beginning of the seventh month of the sacred year of the Hebrews—the month of Tisri, which we call September, that child so eagerly expected came into the world. The faint cries of the new-born babe fell on Anne's ears and overwhelmed her soul with joy.
"Let me see its face," she pleaded. But the women did not hasten to comply. There was no loud rejoicing, such as occurred when a male child was born into the world. No one came near her. She closed her eyes, and a tear stole silently down her cheek.
And now, in answer to a summons, Joachim entered the room. In a low, quiet voice he ordered the women away. Then taking the child in his arms, he brought it to its mother.
"Anne," he said, "let the will of God be accomplished. Let us submit. Our child is—a daughter."
In spite of himself his voice trembled. In spite of his resignation a tear rolled down his cheek. His hopes had reached a pinnacle from which his innate humility could not detach him—he, too, had desired a son with all his heart and soul. And a son preceded by such signs and wonders, surely— Anne took the baby in her arms, but as the tiny form rested upon her bosom her heart leaped. Her face seemed to shine with a happiness so wonderful that again Joachim stood amazed before her.
"A daughter!" she whispered. "A daughter! Ah, yes, but what a daughter! She shall rise in the midst of her people, and shall be blessed above all those who are blessed by God—for she shall open the doors of the East, and the Desired of nations shall appear!"
Her voice seemed to penetrate the uttermost depths of Joachim's heart.
"Behold thou art fair, O my love, behold thou art fair, thy eyes are those of doves. (Cant, i, 14 ) Thou perfumest my dwelling as storax, and galbanum and aloes. Thou shalt be the mother of fair love and of fear and of knowledge and of holy hope. (Ecclus. xxiv, 21, 24.) Oh, what profusion of celestial gifts is spread over thee! The angels bend before this temple of modesty and innocence—a temple their Maker has Himself prepared! Listen! Can you not hear their sublime alleluias, the rustling of their golden wings?"
Joachim started, and fell upon his knees beside the couch, for indeed at that moment he, too, heard a strain of sweetest music, so entrancing that it could not be of earth.
"Let not the others overhear us!" he exclaimed, prudently and humbly. "Let us keep the secrets of the Most High, dear Anne, until it shall please Him to reveal them."
And with trembling hand he blessed his well-beloved daughter, who was to shed such happiness and glory upon his old age. Bowing down, he saluted her as the forerunner of a new era.
And then, the women returning, Anne and Joachim were silent. Nor did they allow a hint of their great joy to escape during the congratulations that followed from the neighbors, relatives and acquaintances who hastened to tender their good wishes.
When the day arrived to give a name to the little daughter Anne called her Mary.
"Mary means exalted," she said to Joachim, "and she shall be exalted like a cedar in Libanus and as a cypress tree on Mount Sion." (Ecclus. xxiv, 17.)
Alas, poor mother! She forgot that this name also signifies woe. Yet both these meanings were in the decrees of God. For if the Queen of angels should at a future period be exalted to the highest in the heavens it would not be until she had removed all woes from the earth.
Ah, name of Mary! So precious to the ear, so dear to the heart! Mary, Queen of angels! Mary, Mother of God! Mary, star of the sea! Mary, Comforter of the afflicted! Pity, have pity on all those who suffer! Pray for them, and may thy name, O Mary, be ever exalted!
Blessed be thy name, Mary!