It was Bethlehem, the end of a long night...
It was Bethlehem, the end of a long night. The star had just disappeared, and the last pilgrim had left the stable. The Virgin arranged the straw: at last the Child could sleep. But who can sleep the night of Christmas?
Gently the door opens, so gently that it seems more like the wind was pushing it than a hand. A woman appears on the threshold, covered with rags. She was so old and wrinkled that you would have thought her mouth was one more deep wrinkle in a face the color of dirt. A fearful chill came over Mary when she saw her, as if a malicious fairy had come into the room.
Fortunately Jesus was asleep. The ass and the ox placidly continued munching their hay, as if there was nothing unusual, as if they had known her forever. The Virgin would not take her eyes off her.
The woman walked slowly, each step seeming to take centuries.
She continued, the old woman, and approached the manger. Thank God, Jesus was still sleeping. How can one sleep on Christmas night? Suddenly he opened his eyelids. His mother was completely astonished to see that the eyes of the old woman and his eyes were exactly the same, they both shone with the same hope.
The old woman sank down on the straw. One hand disappeared into her rags, looking for something, taking ages to find it. Mary watched her closely, still concerned. The animals watched her too, but always without surprise, as if they knew beforehand what was going to happen. Finally, after a long time, slowly, tiredly, the old woman pulls out of her clothes a little object hidden in her hand, and she gives it to the child. All the treasures of the Wise Men and the offerings of the Shepherds, what could this present be?
From where she was, Mary could not tell. She saw only the shoulders bowed down, the woman’s back, bent over from age, now bent over even more before the crib, and the Child within it. The ox and the ass watched, and were not amazed. The woman stayed bowed before the Child a long time. Finally she arose, as if relieved from a great weight which had dragged her to the ground. Her shoulders were no longer bowed down, her head almost touched the low roof, her face seemed miraculously renewed, as if she was finding once more the vigor of her youth. She turned from the crib, smiled at Mary, and went out through the door into the dawning day.
Finally Mary could see the mysterious present. An apple, a little apple, having within it all the sin of the world, given to the baby Jesus- by Eve. For it was Eve, the sad old woman, who had come to worship the Child born of her blood, who would save her from her sins. The apple of the original sin, and the sin of so many who would follow her.
And the little red apple shone in the hands of the Child, as if it were the globe of the kingdom and of the new world which had just been born with the King.
- Jerome and Jean Tharaud of St. Junien (1874, 1877-1853, 1854), in Contes de Nol, Editions du Seuil. Thanks to Father Hawkins at St. Mary the Virgin's Catholic Church.