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Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve: Judith, the young Judean girl

Every Christmas Eve, at the 5 o'clock service, it has become traditional for me to preach a sermon for the children.

I have a friend who says that preaching a children's service is like being thrown into a bucket with live bait. He's right.

After the Gospel is proclaimed, I gather the children at the chancel steps and we re-tell Luke's Christmas Story with some of the characters from the Creche - Mary, Joseph and the three Wise men.

I have a Fontanini Creche, which has all sorts of other characters - villagers who might have been in the Little Town of Bethlehem. I tell the children that one of the greatest gifts God has given us is our imagination. I ask them to think about who might have been in Bethlehem, and how the news of the story of the birth of Jesus might have affect them. I end by asking them to use their imagination and think what it might have been like to have been in Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus. How might they have heard the news? What gift might they bring to Jesus?

Last year, I told the story of Azzan the Baker who found generosity and shared all of his bread with the towns people. This year, I told the story of Judith, a young Judean girl, who dreamed of being 'good enough' to make her parents proud of her.

Here's the story I told. Who do you think was there? What story might you tell? What gift might you bring?

The story of Judith

Judith was the youngest daughter of seven daughters, born to Usef and Zarah in Bethlehem. Her parents thought she would be the one – the boy-child – the son. They thought that about each of the births of their daughters since they had had their second child.

In the village and time when Judith lived, having a son was very, very important. It was not just about a sentimental bias or preference. The economy of the time meant that, if anything happened to Judith’s father, if there were no son, the entire family would be instantly destitute. At that time, it was simply not allowed for Hebrew women to own property or run a business.

Judith often overheard her parents talking late at night about their worries. Zarah was weeping softly. “I have been a failure to you, Usef. I have brought you no sons from my womb. What if anything should happen to you? We would be left with nothing. Absolutely nothing! I have brought shame to your family. To my family. Why has God turned his face from us and not shown us favor?”

She heard her father’s voice speaking tender words of comfort to his wife, “It will be alright. We have good daughters. Beautiful daughters. They will marry good men who will take care of you.” But Zarah was inconsolable.

Usef’s voice brightened. “Just look at our youngest daughter, Judith. She is not only beautiful, she is strong. Why, she is better than any son, helping me tend the sheep in the pastures. She shows real skill at helping me sheer the sheep in the Spring, and I would not have been able to deliver all the lambs without her by my side. She is a real gift from God – a sign that you will not be left without help, should anything happen to me.”

It was in that moment that Judith resolved to be the best daughter any man who wanted a son could hope to ask for. She ignored her mother’s bitter warning to her father, “And, if you are caught teaching your daughter what a father only teaches his son, what then?”

One night, she heard her father tell her mother about a young couple who had come to the town because of the census. The young woman had delivered a son out in the manger where the animals were kept, because there were so many people, there was no other place for them to stay.

But, Usef said, there was something special about this boy-child. The other shepherds who had been keeping watch over the flock were all abuzz about this event, so common and expected in that day and time. A star had appeared in the sky which led them to the place where the young parents had laid their son. The shepherds said that they heard such sweet music as could only be sung by angels in heaven.

“What could it mean,” he asked. “What child is this that has caused such rejoicing that God chose to send a special star in the sky? Some are saying that this is the Messiah, come to save us. Could this be the one?” he mused. “Could this be the savior we have been waiting for these many, long years?”

“It’s a boy,” said Zahara, sadly. “If I should deliver a son, we would also hear angels sing.” She turned a cold shoulder to her husband and said bitterly, “Why should this young woman have a son as her first born? What about us? Who will save us if God should take you?”

It was then that Judith got an idea. She thought that she would bring a small gift to the new family. Surely, they would be thirsty. She would bring them the gift of fresh water to bathe the newborn. Fresh water for the new mother to drink. If she did this small thing, perhaps it would be another sign to her mother that she was just as good as any son. Perhaps it would bring some comfort, some sign of hope.

So, even before the early morning light, before any one in the house awoke, Judith dressed quietly and quickly and slipped out of her parent’s house. She picked up a large jug and filled it with fresh water from the well and then, heaved the heavy jug onto her head. She let out a little groan as she did and silently wondered if she had made too much noise.
She turned from the well and headed out on her journey. Her face was lined with determination and conviction. She knew exactly where she was going. Her father had described the place where the new family were staying. She knew the exact place from her work with him in the fields.

Water. She would bring a gift of water. Water was the gift of life given by an abundant God who cared for and loved every creature in creation. Her gift would be a sign and symbol of God’s blessing upon this new life. Hope for the future. Their future. Her future.

She heard herself hum a little song as she walked. It was an ancient song, one that had been taught to her and every young Hebrew girl who had their own section in the Temple, apart from the boys and men. It was the ancient prayer of Hannah, the mother of Samuel.

Judith joined her voice with the ancient voices of all the women of the nation of Israel who waited in hope as she carried the heavy jug of water to the newborn son of Mary and Joseph. She sang, “My heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exalted in the Lord.”

Judith didn’t know it, but her parents were watching her at the doorway of their home. Her father had surmised what she was doing and had told her mother. Judith couldn’t see the proud smiles beaming on their faces. She couldn’t hear her mother singing Hannah’s song with her softly, tenderly, the words and music guiding her steps toward the place where she would find hope and salvation sleeping gently, bundled in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

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