Onions and Angels

by Kiersti Plog

Squeezing through the crowded Bethlehem street, Benjamin reached the vegetable cart just as a Pharisee plunked down coins for the last bunch of garlic.

“Please! I need that.” Benjamin grabbed at the man’s sleeve, but the Pharisee shoved him to the ground.

“Be off, shepherd boy!” The Pharisee frowned down his nose as if he could smell that Benjamin hadn’t ceremonially washed.

Scraped hands stinging, Benjamin picked himself up. “But—”

“Don’t talk back to a teacher of the law,” the vegetable lady silenced him, shaking her finger.

The Pharisee disappeared into the crowd, garlic waving over his prayer shawl-covered shoulder.

Benjamin kicked his bare toes in the rocky dirt. “I need garlic for my father. He’s sick.” He looked pleadingly at the vegetable seller.

“Can I help that these census crowds have cleaned me out?” she demanded. “Onions will do for your father.”

Benjamin laid two copper coins on the cart and took the onions.

No Room
As he weaved through the hordes of travelers obeying Caesar’s command to register, Benjamin heard innkeepers bellow, “No room!”

Those without a bed for the night gathered around fires built in the street, rubbing their hands for warmth. Benjamin’s family never slept on beds as they tended the sheep. No beds, and now no garlic for Abba’s cough. Nothing was fair for shepherds. If Benjamin never saw a Pharisee again, it’d be—

Benjamin smacked into someone and nearly went sprawling. This time, a strong hand caught him.

“Sorry, lad. I wasn’t paying attention.”

He looked into the face of a young man with kind but anxious eyes. Mumbling an apology, Benjamin pulled away.

“Do you know of any place with room for tonight?” the man asked.

“Try that inn, but I don’t think—”

“Thanks.” The man charged off. Benjamin watched as the innkeeper answered the door and gestured for the man to join the travelers bedding down in the street.

The young man shook his head vehemently and pointed behind him. Benjamin noticed a young woman—probably the man’s wife—cradling her belly, which was swollen like a mother sheep in lambing season. No wonder the man looked worried.

But the innkeeper slammed the door. The young man’s shoulders slumped as he walked away.

Benjamin quickly crossed the street and caught up with the man. “I know one more inn at the edge of town,” he said, pointing. “Near the lambing caves.”

The lines on the man’s forehead eased a little. “Thank you, lad.”

A Promise
Climbing the stony hill outside Bethlehem, Benjamin’s steps slowed. He hoped the young couple—and their baby—would be all right. He thought the innkeeper might have made space if the young man had been a Pharisee. They always seemed to get special treatment.

Later that night, Benjamin settled next to Abba by the campfire. The sheep’s soft bleats mingled with the crackling logs. The onion broth had eased Abba’s breathing a little, but Benjamin heard the rattle in his chest. Ever since a priest accused Abba of selling blemished lambs and had him imprisoned three years ago, the cough came as often as autumn rains. Abba listened, scratching the ears of a lamb beside him, as Benjamin told of the Pharisee, vegetable lady, the young couple and coming baby.

Abba coughed. “Much isn’t fair in this world, my son. But God knows that. Someday He will send the Messiah—as it is written, ‘He will judge the poor righteously and execute justice for the oppressed.’ ”

“Hope it’s soon,” Benjamin muttered. He slid under his sheepskin and gazed at the stars glittering overhead. Did the God who created those shining lights really care about people like him? The way most priests and Pharisees acted, he struggled to believe the Messiah would be any different.

“Lord,” Benjamin whispered, gazing at one especially bright star, “why did You let Abba get put in jail unfairly so he’s sick all the time? Why do You let people like us get shoved out in the cold? It’s not fair.” He pulled his sheepskin under his chin and fell asleep.

Good News
A blinding light—brighter than the sun at midday—startled Benjamin awake. He opened his eyes and then dove under his sheepskin. What was that?

“Don’t be afraid,” a voice spoke.

His heart pounding in his ears, Benjamin stayed under cover. An angel—it must be an angel. But why? Did even the angels have it in for shepherds now?

“I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” the angel said. “Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.”

Benjamin pulled off the sheepskin and sat up. Around him other shepherds cowered beside the sheep or stared open-mouthed. Abba squeezed his shoulder so hard it hurt. Benjamin could only think, The Messiah? And he’s telling us?

“This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”

A manger? Suddenly, hundreds upon thousands of angels lit up the sky, singing like thunder and falling water and harp music rolled together: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth!”

Benjamin stood up and found himself blinking in the darkness. The fire burned low. The others spoke in excited bursts.

“Let’s go!”

“Straight to Bethlehem!”

“And see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us!”

Us, Benjamin thought. He told us!

He stumbled through the dark fields, Abba gripping his hand. The shepherds headed toward a light gleaming from a lambing cave on the outskirts of the city. Benjamin stopped so suddenly Abba bumped into him. Could it be?

Sure enough, the young man he had directed earlier stepped from the stable. His eyes glinted with recognition when he saw Benjamin, but he held his finger to his lips.

Benjamin thought he saw tears in the man’s eyes as the shepherds told their story. Soon Benjamin knelt in soft straw by a newborn baby in a manger, just as the angel had said. His mother rested beside Him, her hand protecting His tiny head. The Messiah... and Bethlehem had found no room for Him.

Benjamin blinked hard. I’m sorry, Lord, for thinking You didn’t care. I guess some of those priests and Pharisees don’t really know You at all. I guess I don’t, either; but I want to.

The Baby worked one fist free of His swaddling clothes. Benjamin reached out, and the Baby grasped his finger.

For Everyone
As the stars paled toward dawn, the shepherds scattered through Bethlehem, telling what they had seen and heard—even Abba walked stronger than he had in months.

Darting down a side street, Benjamin halted. The vegetable seller trudged toward him, dragging her cart over the stones.

“I haven’t any garlic today,” she grumbled. But her face didn’t look so mean anymore, just sad and tired.

Benjamin grabbed one of the cart’s handles and helped pull. “I don’t need garlic,” he said. “I just want to tell you something—some good news.”

The Messiah had come for the grumpy vegetable lady, too. Just as He had come for shepherds.

This story first appeared in the December 2013 issue of Clubhouse magazine. Copyright © 2013 by Kiersti Plog. Illustration © Jim Madsen.