cross something seemed familiar. He quickly turned away.
Then a woman approached, supported by a young fellow and two female companions. The young one asked the guards if the group might approach the cross. The centurion heard the guard refuse, saying that there was no room. He turned at the words, and the woman's eyes found his.
And suddenly he was three decades younger, standing in a raucous inn in a town called Bethlehem. He had been a new recruit then, and had been so excited to go to a distant land to conduct the Emperor's census. The excitement had been short-lived. The tiny village had no entertainment, so the soldiers had taken over the courtyard of the inn, drinking and carousing into the wee hours every night. He had never been a big drinker, so he usually sat by the wall until it got quiet enough to sleep.
He had been sitting there when he noticed the innkeeper open the door that night. A young man stood in the doorway, gesturing back into the street. The soldier looked where the man pointed, and saw a woman sitting on the back of a donkey. Her condition was unmistakable.
The innkeeper took one glance at the woman, paled, and firmly told the man that there was no room for him or his wife. The soldier saw the wife's eyes as the innkeeper began to close the door. He had expected to see anger and fear and disappointment in those eyes, but instead they smiled at her husband with love and trust and serenity.
He couldn't believe those eyes.
And now, he began to worry about the woman herself. He told himself that it was none of his concern, but he couldn't let it go. So, after arguing with himself for a few minutes, he stood and slipped out the door of the inn. He began walking the streets, starting at one end of the village and working his way toward the other.
That was when he saw the group of shepherds. They all seemed to be looking up and listening to something. The soldier quietly fell in behind them.
They walked to the outskirts of the town, and began entering a stable.
The soldier moved toward the door, and stopped. There was the woman. She was just laying a newborn Child into a manger.
The soldier didn't know how she knew that he was there but she turned and smiled at him, inviting him with her eyes. And suddenly he, a tough new centurion, was afraid. He knew that if he entered that stable, he would never be the same. He began to back away silently.
Her eyes sadly watched him leave.
He had never seen her again - until now. She was standing in front of his guard, trying to reach the Man on the Cross.
The old centurion ordered the guard to let the woman and her companions into the circle. He followed her to the foot of the cross, standing quietly just behind her.
She turned and gazed at him with the same invitation in her eyes, the invitation that he had rejected over 30 years before. This time he accepted it, and looked fully into the face of the Man on the cross - her Son.
It had taken him over 30 years, but he realized that he had finally entered the stable where Love was born.
"Truly, this is the son of God," he said.
In the Stable
He was so excited that he knew that he would not sleep a single wink that night. It was to be his first night with his own flock.
He had come of age just two weeks ago, and his father had given him his very own staff. He had watched his dad work on the staff for months, shaping and smoothing the wood so it would fit his hand perfectly. He had been so proud when his parents presented it to him, along with 5 sheep of his very own to watch.
They were older ewes, separated from his family's flock. His father had chosen them because they were plump and docile, so they would be easy to tend.
He had worked hard to learn to use his staff to guide his sheep along the paths and into the fields each day. And this afternoon his father had called him aside and told him that he was ready to take his little flock into the fields that night and watch over them without any help.
He had already selected the place where he would go. It was on a small hill behind the town. There was a stable there, but it was seldom used and no one came there at night. It would be quiet and safe.
When evening came, his mother gave him a supper to take with him on his vigil, and he carefully led his sheep around the village and onto the hill. The night was lovely, and the stars seemed especially bright.
His sheep - how he loved the sound of that - settled down, and he ate his meal. Then, he too slowly drifted off to sleep.
It was totally dark when something startled him into wakefulness. He looked around and couldn't believe what he was seeing.
His sheep were behaving like lambs in a field full of clover. They were leaping and playing, full of joy. He wasn't sure what to do. Old ewes never leap and play, they have to be pushed into walking quickly. And they definitely don't look joyful.
But right now his sheep did.
He jumped to his feet to find his father, and noticed that the stable below him wasn't empty.
A woman was leaving, and a soldier was coming up the hill toward its front door. The woman was smiling through eyes full of tears. The soldier, however, wasn't smiling. He looked almost afraid. And he had stopped walking. He was just standing there, like a statue, staring into the stable.
The boy wondered what could possibly frighten a Roman soldier.
He had been about to go down to that stable, but now he thought he would wait a bit to see if anything else happened. So he sat down quietly beside a bush on the hillside and continued his watch. His sheep were still playing behind him.
Suddenly, he saw his father and the other shepherds. They passed the soldier and entered the stable. He thought he heard singing.
If his father was in that stable, he was going too. So he grabbed his staff and strode down the hill. The soldier was leaving, and his face now looked more sad than afraid. The boy tried to smile at him, but he didn't think the man even noticed that he was there.
And then he saw what was in that stable, and he forgot about everything else. A woman welcomed him with her eyes, and a Child stared at him from the depths of a manger.
As the boy approached the Baby, he thought the tiny face smiled at him. He found himself smiling back, and he walked right up to the Little One.
"I only own this staff," he said, "but I would like to give it to your Baby as a present."
The Child's father took the staff and held it so the Infant's fingers could reach it. They curled around the wood tightly.
"Thank you," he said. "It is right that His first gift should be a shepherd's staff. But He would like you to keep it for Him. Can you do that?"
"I can", said the boy, "But how will I know when to give it back to Him?"
"He will find you," said the Child's father, handing the staff back.
And Thomas took his staff, and joined the rest of the shepherds.
Peg Luksik is the Chairman of the Center for American Heritage. Learn more about the heritage of this exceptional nation at www.centerforamericanheritage.com
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Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: Christmas, Manger, Bethlehem, Birth, Nativity, Love, Christ Child, Peg Luksik
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