Every year for the past three decades on Christmas Day I have read an original Christmas story to the children who join us for worship at our morning service.

Hear is this year’s attempt to touch little hearts with something of the deeper meaning of this season:

Joseph’s Walking Stick
by C. Page December 2018

 It had been a hard year. Samuel could not believe a whole year had gone by since his father Joseph disappeared.

No one knows what happened on that terrible day.

Joseph left early in the morning as he always did to take the sheep out to pasture in the hills behind their village. Samuel had woken with his father and collected bread and water to put in the pack his father carried. He brought Joseph’s heavy cloak to wear against the cold. Then Samuel brought the tall heavy walking stick Joseph always took with him when he went out to pasture the sheep.

Joseph was famous for his walking stick. It was taller than Samuel, made of heavy dense wood with Joseph’s name carved down the side. Near the top there was a cross piece of wood bound firmly to the walking stick. Joseph used the cross piece to reach out and pull a sheep back to safety when it had fallen into a ravine or wandered into a patch of brambles. It was an unusual shepherd’s crook; but it worked for Joseph and he never left his walking stick behind when he went to tend the sheep.

Joseph left the house where Samuel’s mother still slept and strode out into the hills swinging his walking stick with his flock of sheep following behind. And that was it… no one ever saw Samuel’s father again.

At first they were not too worried. It was not unusual for Joseph to stay out in the hills with his sheep overnight. If one of the sheep had gone missing, Joseph would hunt until he found that one stray. Then it might be too dark to risk walking the narrow trail back to the village to bring the flock home. So, Joseph would build a small fire and settle down for a cold night.

Samuel and his mother were sure that the next morning they would see Joseph striding into the village, whistling a tune, swinging his walking stick, and calling out a friendly greeting to everyone as he passed. Samuel rose early that day and went to the edge of the village, hoping he would be the first to see his father coming. Samuel watched and watched. But Joseph did not come.

After a long wait Samuel saw his father’s sheep straggling down the trail towards the village. His heart brightened. But they were alone finding their way home without anyone to lead them. Samuel herded the sheep carefully into the pen and closed the gate behind them. But no father.

The next day the other men of the village went out to search for Joseph; but he was never found. There was no trace of Samuel’s father anywhere.

Gradually, the sadness began to settle into a dull ache in the pit of Samuel’s stomach as he realized his father was not coming home. Samuel’s mother tried to be brave; but he could see the sadness and fear in her eyes. It was hard to be a young mother with a son and no one to care for you.

Samuel promised himself he would do everything he could to look after his mother. He took care of the sheep, helped his mother in their small garden, and went to market to sell whatever they were able to grow.

So, Samuel and his mother got by. But the sadness was never far from the door. It lurked around the edges of their lives like an unwelcome guest. It was hard not to look up into those hills and still hope to see Joseph striding down the trail swinging his walking stick. But he never came. And after a year, they had given up hope.

This was when the strange thing happened.

Samuel was leading his little flock out to pasture, when he saw some of the other shepherds from his village, returning with their sheep after spending the night in the hills. When they met on the trail, Samuel felt an unusual air of excitement among the other shepherds.

“What’s going on?” Samuel asked.

There was silence for a moment, then one of the shepherds replied, “We saw angels.”

“You saw what?” Samuel sputtered not believing what he had heard.

“Angels” the other shepherds all answered together.

Then the shepherd who had spoken first said, “They told us we should return to our village and that we would find a baby in a shed and that this baby was God’s gift to all people.”

Samuel thought his friends must have been drinking too much wine.

“You must come with us,” they urged Samuel.

But, Samuel did not believe in angels and he knew that babies were just a nuisance and he had his sheep to look after, and chores to do at the end of the day. He certainly did not have time for crazy stories about angels. So Samuel let his friends go on their crazy mission and he took his sheep off into the hills for the day.

All day Samuel watched his sheep. And all day he kept hearing the words in his head, “Angels… a baby… God’s gift.” Somehow his friends’ crazy story would not leave him alone.

When the day’s grazing was over and the sheep were tired, Samuel led them back to the sheep pen. He finished his chores, and ate the simple supper his mother had prepared. Then, Samuel sat outside and watched the sheep as they quietly shuffled against each other.

“Angels… a baby… God’s gift” – the words would not stop. What else had they said? “In a shed, behind the inn.” Samuel knew where the inn was and he knew that run-down old shed. It was certainly no place for a baby and no place you would ever expect to find any kind of gift.

But, Samuel thought, “It couldn’t hurt just to walk by and look. No one needed to know why he was there.”

As Samuel approached the shed, he felt a strange flutter of excitement. “This is crazy,” he thought. There is nothing here. It is just an old shed, maybe a couple of cows and a tired old donkey.

Slowly, he pushed the big wooden door open a crack and peered into the gloomy interior. He saw a man and a woman. They were sitting together looking down into the straw lining a feeding trough. There was a strange hush in this shed. Nothing moved. The woman looked up and saw Samuel. She beckoned him forward.

Samuel stepped inside and came towards the couple. He looked down into the feeding trough and, it was true, there nestled in the straw was a baby. Samuel looked at the tiny helpless infant and felt a deep warm glow in his heart.

“His name is Jesus”, the woman said. “He is God’s gift to all people,” she went on.

Samuel did not reply. He just stood and looked. Gradually, Samuel realized that, the old sadness that had been his companion for so long was beginning to shift. It was not entirely gone. It was more as if it had moved to one side and now there was something else alongside the sadness. Beside the sadness Samuel noticed a feeling that was stronger and seemed more real than all the pain he had felt since Joseph went missing.

Samuel looked up at the woman. She had gentle kind eyes. “May I bring my mother to see your baby?” Samuel asked.

“Of course,” the woman replied. Then she said, “But first I want you to have a gift. It is leaning against the wall, over there in the corner.”

Samuel moved over to the dark corner of the shed.  There, leaning against the wall was his father’s walking stick. It was unmistakable. There was the name Joseph carved down one said. There was the familiar cross piece bound to the staff near the top.

Samuel took the sturdy piece of wood in his hands and walked back to the woman.

“Where did you get it?” he asked.

“It was given to my husband,” she said… “nearly a year ago. Someone found it in the hills. Its owner must have had the same name as my husband. We don’t know what happened to the Joseph whose name is carved on this stick; but I feel this walking stick should belong to you. We want you to have it.”

Samuel held the stick in his hand. It was solid; he felt strength entering him through this walking stick that had belonged to his father.

“Thank you,” Samuel said, and turned towards the door. As he left the shed, he tried to swing the stick as his father had with great long strides. But his arms were not strong enough and he had to content himself with poking the ground each step along the way.

But, as he walked holding his father’s walking stick, Samuel felt deep peacefulness. He felt that he and his mother were going to be alright. They would be strong together. He knew that the feeling he had when he saw that baby would be there beside any fear or sadness he might ever experience. He knew the walking stick would remind him that, even when he felt weak and fearful, he could always find strength and peace that no hurt could ever destroy.

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