I don't read the stories I tell on Christmas day - they are told, without notes or a script. The written version of the story is just a guide!
This story is based on an old tradition that all the birds of the air came to worship at the manger except the owl. I wondered what he might have been doing instead...
On the night when Jesus was born, an owl flew through the dark skies near Bethlehem, calling out “Whoo! Whoo!” as it always did. The darkness didn’t bother the owl at all. He was born for the night, a creature of the night. He could see in the dark, and he could hear a mouse creeping through the grass in a field a mile away. But the noise he heard in the middle of that deep, dark night, wasn’t what he was expecting at all. Cock- a – doodle-doo! It was the cry of a cockerel! But it was nowhere near dawn. What was happening? The cry came from the direction of Bethlehem, and the owl decided he should go and check it out. So he flew as fast as he could on his silent wings towards the village. He soon found the cockerel, standing on the roof of a ramshackle stable, cockadoodledoing his heart out.
‘What’s going on?’ said the owl. ‘It’s hours till daybreak!’
‘But tonight something very special has happened’, crowed the cockerel. ‘God’s Messiah, his Son, has been born, the one we’ve all been waiting for, the one who is coming to show us how to love one another and to live in peace! And he is right here, in this stable! See – all the birds are here to greet him! Why don’t you join them?’
The Owl peered through a gap in the thatched roof. There inside he could see a mother, and a father, and a baby lying in the manger, and around him, all the birds of the air. The lark was singing a sweet song to lull the baby to sleep. The stork was plucking soft feathers from her own body to cushion the baby’s head. The robin was fanning the feeble fire with his own wings till it’s breast turned bright red – as it still is to this day.
‘Whoo me? Go in there? No!’ said the Owl., I can’t go in there. It looks lovely, but it’s far too bright. The light will hurt my eyes. And anyway, I am a creature of the night. People shiver when they hear me cry. They think I am the sign that something bad will happen. I will just stay outside and watch from here.’
And that’s what he did. All through that night and the nights that followed he watched over the baby, as shepherds came to visit him and then visitors from far away arrived with strange gifts. In the day time the owl tucked himself under the eaves and slept, but at night, he watched to make sure the child and his family were safe.
All was peaceful until, one night, in the deepest part of the black midnight, owl, with his sharp hearing heard something he didn’t like at all. He heard the noise of marching feet, and of swords and spears, and of men talking to each other in gruff voices. ‘Can’t think why King Herod has to send us out on this job in the middle of the night to look for this baby he’s so angry about! Couldn’t it have waited till morning?’ ‘He must be really determined to get rid of him – a child born to be king, those wise men said – a rival for Herod – no wonder he’s rattled.’ ‘Anyway, it’s no good us complaining about it. We’ve just got to follow his orders – or we’ll be for the high jump ourselves!’
What was this? thought owl, alarmed. King Herod’s soldiers! Coming to get rid of the child! And the mother and father fast asleep below! He must do something!
‘Whoo! Whoo!’ he called out, as loud as he could. Down below, Mary and Joseph sat up in the straw where they had made their bed. ‘What was that?’ said Mary. ‘Just that dratted owl’ said Joseph. ‘I’ll see if I can chase him away in the morning. Mind you, I’m not sorry to wake up. I was having a terrible dream. I dreamt that King Herod was trying to get rid of our baby, and that God was telling us to take him and run. You don’t think there could be anything in it, do you?’ ‘No, surely not! Why would a great man like Herod want to harm our a poor baby? It’s not as if he’s got an army to command’ said Mary, ‘and even if there is something to worry about, I’m sure it can wait till morning. Let’s go back to sleep while we can – if that owl will let us – and think about it tomorrow.’
‘Whoo! Whoo!’ called the owl, even louder. How could he make them listen? The soldiers were coming closer. He could hear them. Summoning all his courage he flew down from the roof and into the stable. The firelight was bright, dazzling, but the owl was determined. He flew right up to Joseph and took his sleeve in his beak and started to pull on it. ‘What on earth is going on? Get off me!’ said Joseph. But then, Joseph and Mary heard it too – the sound of those swords and spears and marching feel – still far off, but unmistakeable. The owl was right. The dream was right. Jesus was in danger.
They picked him up from the manger, and quickly gathered together their few belongings, and stumbled out into the night – the stars and the moon were covered in thick clouds. ‘But where will we go? And how will we find the way?’ said Mary. ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ called the owl, a little way off. ‘The owl seems to know where we should go,’ said Joseph ‘we may not be able to see in the dark, but he can. Let’s follow him!’
They headed towards the owl. He waited for them to catch up, then flew on, hooting again. On they went, on a dark path that lead between the hills, far, far up into rocky valleys with steep sides until they came to the mouth of a cave. The owl flew straight into it, but Mary and Joseph hesitated just inside its mouth. Above them could hear the skittering of bats, and they felt spiders’ webs brush their faces. ‘Ugh!’ said Joseph. ‘I hate this darkness, and the things that live in it!’ ‘But what other choice do we have?’ said Mary. ‘And the owl has been kind to us – and isn’t he a creature of darkness too? Besides, doesn’t it say in our Scriptures that the darkness is no darkness to God, that to him the darkness and light are both alike? And at least we’ll be well hidden ’ ‘Hmm’ said Joseph. ‘Perhaps…’ ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ called the owl. They inched their way deeper into the cave, feeling ahead of them with their hands, until all of a sudden,Joseph felt, under his hand, a rough, hairy head, and pointed ears and a long nose, and sharp, sharp teeth. Just at that moment, the clouds parted and a shaft of moonlight lit up the cave. Joseph looked down. And there, looking up at him, was a great, grey wolf, yellow eyes gleaming in the glow. ‘It’s a wolf! Mary. The owl has brought us into a wolf’s den. We’re done for!’ But the wolf just looked up at them, and the child in Mary’s arms, with kindness and love in its eyes. It made no move to attack them. ‘Oh Joseph! I don’t think the owl would have brought us here to be eaten by a wolf . And doesn’t it say in our Scriptures than when God’s kingdom comes he will teach all things to live in peace and the wolf will lie down with the lamb and live in peace. I think our lamb of God is safe with Brother wolf here. Let’s find somewhere to sit down at the back of the cave and rest, and hope the soldiers give up and go home.’
But the owl was still listening, and he knew it wasn’t to be so. The soldiers were still coming closer, spreading out to search the rocky valleys in twos and threes. He could hear soldiers coming up the path to this valley, this cave.The owl knew he needed to act fast. ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ he called to the other creatures in the cave, and flew down to a rock by the wolf’s side. A bat flew down from the cave to join them, and a spider scuttled out from under the rock and up its sides. There was a growling and a muttering and a skittering and soft whooting as they seemed to talk together and then, as Mary and Joseph watched, the owl flew out of the cave up and perched in a scrubby tree above it. The bats flew out in a great cloud and hung upside down from the rocky ledges along the valley side. The wolf padded a little way out from the cave, and hid himself behind some rocks, and every spider in the cave scuttled out to the cave mouth and began to spin. To and fro across the cave mouth they spun their silk, until it was a thick curtain hiding Mary and Joseph and the baby.
They were just in time, because just at that moment, two soldiers came stumbling up the pathway to the cave. ‘What about this then? A cave – that would be a good place to hide. Should we have a look?’ ‘Nah. Don’t be daft! Look at those spider’s webs. They must have been there ages, to be so thick – no one’s been in this cave for years!’ The soldiers began to turn away, and inside the cave, Mary and Joseph silently sighed with relief. But then one of the soldiers said to the other, ‘ Mind you – we could do with a rest ourselves, and that cave would do nicely for twenty minutes kip. No one would notice if we had a bit of shut-eye. Maybe we could have brew up. We can easily slice through these cobwebs with our swords.. What do you think?’ ‘Yeah, why not?’ said the other. And they drew their swords and raised them, ready to cut their way into the cave…
But the owl saw, and the owl heard. ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ he called out. And he launched himself from his perch, and all the bats swooped down with him from the rocks, and they tangled themselves in the soldiers hair and scratched at them with their claws. ‘Spiders! Owls! bats! – what is this cursed place?” said the soldiers, trying to beat them away. And then, from his place behind the rocks, the wolf put up his great grey head and opened his great slavering mouth and howled with all his might, a howl that turned water to ice, that turned wood to stone, that turned knees to jelly. And he stepped out from behind the rock, and ran at the soldiers, eyes glowing like coals, teeth glinting in the moonlight. And they dropped their weapons and they ran and they ran and they ran! They ran as far and as fast as they could, and they never came back again.
And inside the cave, Mary and Joseph laughed softly to themselves, with relief and with gratitude for all that these creatures of the night had done for them and their child.
And in the morning, before they set out on their way, they promised that they would bring up their child never to be afraid of the darkness, or the creatures that live in it. And they were true to their word, because when he grew up this child, Jesus, never shunned or feared those who found themselves in dark places and dark times. And when he hung on a cross and the sky turned dark in the middle of the day, he remembered it for himself too. God is with us in the darkness, just as he is in the light; to him the night is as bright as the day.
This story is based on fragments of folklore, but it is an Anne Le Bas original. Please credit me if you use it elsewhere! Thanks
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