Wednesday, 31 December 2008 01:51

Ancient traditions assume the Magi travelled on camels, and maybe ... just maybe ... if they passed through Thailand on their way ... they switched to elephants or even ox carts

Those in power write the history; those who suffer write the songs, and they who give the orders are never those who die.

But once it was different, and so it is every Christmas.

At that first Christmas midnight, angels in the high heavens sang for joy over Bethlehem - a blessed joy that carried over the Judean hills and around the world, and has continued to do so every year on this day, for 2,008 years now.

Today, history and song come together. The shepherd families were the first. Somehow, the angels wanted them to be the first to know that baby Jesus was born on Earth. He was the first to hear their singing. I imagine the shepherd families must have stood in awe, and they well may have knelt down.

But their children! The love story of angels singing in the skies over Bethlehem, and shepherd children - running fast - ahead of their parents - their mums telling them not to run so fast lest they fall down and hurt themselves - following the star and the sound of singing - finding baby Jesus with Mary and Joseph. The love story started there, and it has never stopped and never will. Our scriptures say that the star moved ahead of them, guided them, and stopped over where the child was born.

The same star that the Magi saw: "We saw the star rise in the East." And of course, the shepherd children met the Magi, those great learned and holy men who had followed the star. The astrologers. They who offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

But again, the children. Ancient traditions assume the Magi travelled on camels, and maybe ... just maybe ... if they passed through Thailand on their way ... they switched to elephants or even ox carts, and if they passed through your land ... well, you'll have to tell me how they travelled. But no matter what, the shepherd children pestered them for rides and presents. Mary most probably kept the gifts of frankincense and myrrh for years later, when Joseph died, and also Mary at the cross, at the burial of her son. But I'm sure they shared the gold and bought presents for all the children who came to visit Jesus, to play with.

The shepherd children sang off-key, but loudly, with the angels. Old traditions say Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem for over a year after Jesus was born. They found a house to live in. Joseph the carpenter worked to buy food to feed the family and to raise their child.

So the children came again and again. Throughout the year, visiting often, playing with Jesus; wanting to help him learn how to walk; asking Mary if they could take Jesus with them to watch their sheep.

But it's never quite that simple, is it?

Joseph and Mary knew in their heart of hearts that the birth of the son of God could not proceed easily. All of us could have guessed that. Christmas cannot come and go easily. So even before they sang into the skies, the angels surely gave Joseph the carpenter the courage he needed. "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife," they told him. "Her child is of the Holy Spirit." And to Mary: "Do not be afraid. You shall bear a son and his name is Emmanuel. God is with us."

"Somehow, it will all work out," he told Mary. "Somehow, we will raise and protect this child. The angels are with us. They will protect us. I don't know how, but somehow it will happen." And Mary smiled. "And maybe, somehow, the child will protect us."

Jesus was born in a stable/cave in Bethlehem. The shepherd families had gone back to tending their flocks. They told the story through the years - passed it down through generations. Until there was left just one old man. He was the last living shepherd child who had seen the baby Jesus and heard the singing of the angels. He was dying. His clan gathered at his deathbed, and he told them to tell their children's children how the Christ child had called shepherds to come; how our shepherd children had once played with, and had actually touched, the son of God; how we shepherds were the first people he wanted to see on Earth; and how baby Jesus thereby gave us dignity and honour.

The carpenter and the Virgin Mary protected the child. They had no tanks, guns or armoured cars, no power, and didn't know anyone of influence or importance. Mary looked at Joseph. The angels will not abandon us, he thought. They promised. And Mary and Joseph repeated to each other how the angels announced to the shepherds when Jesus was born, how they lit the star in the heavens for the Magi, how they came and sang in the high heavens and how they would not betray them.

This simple Christmas story certainly does not tell of the angels telling Joseph to flee with the child and his mother to Egypt. It does not speak of the angels telling the Magi to leave Bethlehem immediately, to travel home by a different route; that the cruel monster Herod was restless ... and waiting to kill the child. It does not tell of how years later angels told Joseph to return home from Egypt, not to Bethlehem but to Nazareth, as the nephew of the dead Herod was even more horrible. Nor does it tell of the difficult adult years yet to come, his crucifixion, and his resurrection from the dead. It doesn't tell of the beautiful old legend that states when his mother Mary died, she was taken to heaven by a thousand points of light, either.

When I was a young priest, some 40 years ago in Northeast Thailand, I remember the old men and women in our remote Thai catholic village, far off the main road, telling me that upon a lonely winter night, close to Christmas, when all is ghostly quiet, you can hear the faint singing of the angels, and the children singing off-key. If you want to listen.

It's Christmas and there is no tomorrow. I leave the moral of the story up to you. Are there any lessons to be learned or any joys and sorrows to be shared?

Maybe, if you want to, you might remember far back in your own memory, maybe even your dreams, when you were small and perhaps heard the faint singing of the angels, and now, once again, you might join with the shepherd children, or even your own children - and quietly sing, even if you are a bit off-key.

Father Joe Maier is the director and co-founder of the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey, Bangkok.

For more information on the foundation's work, call 02-671-5313 or visit

[as published in the Bangkok Post, 25/12/2008]