By Ogova Ondego
Published December 25, 2015
The morning dew was heavy on the leaves and tall grass on the footpath. Birds were singing in the fruit-laden branches of the fig and sycamore trees.
From a distance, spine-tingling cries of babies pierced the stillness of the morning. But Maria noticed none of these things as she hurried to the village well with a water-pot balancing on her head, deep in thought.
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To draw enough water for the home, Maria needed to make at least five trips to the well which was about 400 metres away from her home in Nazareth. Her parents, though related to David, Israel’s greatest King, eked a living from peasant farming and could not afford a domestic servant. That meant that all domestic work was shared between Maria, the only girl in the home, and her mother.
After making breakfast for her father and two elder brothers and a cousin before they left for communal labour at the local Roman soldiers’ camp, Maria had removed cow dung from the cattle shed, swept the compound and now was on her way to the well.
The sun would soon rise over the beautiful gentle hills of Galilee, dispersing the morning mist, and soon the ground would be shimmering with heat. She did not want this to happen before she had completed her trips to the well for it would force her to walk in the almost unbearable hot morning sun of Nazareth. She therefore increased her pace.
Besides having to take care of her baby brother so that her mother could go to the farm to harvest wheat, Maria wanted to make it to the well before long queues of women and girls had formed. At such times, it was not uncommon for tempers to rise, insults exchanged and even fights to break out. Things usually got worse when herdsmen brought their livestock for watering early. Women were expected to give men the right of way at such times. To avoid such inconveniences, Maria always went to the well early.
On her last trip from the well, Maria came across two men who seemed to be engaged in heated discussion. They looked up as she came near, stopping their conversation at the same time.
“Shalom,” Maria greeted them but they stared at her as if they were both deaf and dumb. When they thought she was out of earshot one of them said, “Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good.”
“Or thinks she is doing good,” interjected his colleague, to which they both broke into a loud raucous laughter.
They were evidently discussing her, Maria concluded, but as was her habit, she quickly dismissed them from her mind. Her father was the only man she knew who respected women as God intended.
Unlike other men in the synagogue or at the shopping centre, Maria had never heard her father pray, “Thank you God for creating me neither a woman, a slave, nor a Gentile.” Without discrimination, he had taught Maria and her two brothers the importance of scriptures, especially those on prophecies concerning the Messiah. For this her father had been attacked, reviled, insulted and pooh-poohed for daring to teach his daughter, an ‘impure’ woman, God’s word. Despite this, he made sure that Maria was always surrounded with godly and positive examples in the home. As a family, they often prayed to God reminding Him of His promises to send Israel a saviour. Having failed to dissuade him from teaching Maria God’s word, his detractors now directed their hatred at Maria whom they referred to as “The Princess in Tatters.” Snubbing her in public, as the two men had just done, became a daily occurrence which Maria had learnt to live with.
Maybe all this would come to an end when she got married, she thought. She remembered her wedding which was just around the corner. Her parents had already arranged for her to marry Joseph, a poor but godly man. Joseph, the village carpenter, was also of the clan of David. He had already paid part of the dowry agreed upon between his best man and Maria’s father. The rest, he had promised, would be paid in three months.
How would marriage change her life? She wondered whether Roman soldiers would demand a share of her harvest of grapes, melons, oranges, wheat and barley as they did from her mother. What sort of wedding would she have, and would her children be made to work for the Romans as her brothers were doing? When would God send the long promised messiah to deliver Israel from Rome? It was only the previous evening that a 70-year-old man had collapsed under the back-breaking load he had been made to carry to King Herod’s palace, 10 kilometres away. The prayer her father had made to God then was now vivid in her mind. “Oh God, why don’t you send us the deliverer? Your people are tired of being enslaved in their own country and having to carry luggage for Roman soldiers for more than the one mile their law stipulates; they are taxed for everything they produce on their farms. Oh God, remember the promises you made to your people through the prophets of old.”
Maria’s mind wandered back to the coming wedding. How she would miss her mother and her ever reassuring presence during their bread-making and wool-spinning sessions! She would certainly miss her father’s deep voice and charming smile during devotions. Joseph, what kind of man was he? Was he as kind and loving as her father to her mother? She felt a little jealous of her mother for having married such a wonderful man.
Suddenly Maria was aware of someone walking with her. She felt her knees grow weak and cold beads of sweat form on her brow. She stood still, water from the pot dripping on her head and then rolling on her left cheek. Her voice had also taken flight.
“Greetings Maria,” the stranger said but it was as if he were addressing a stone. “I am Gabriel, God’s messenger, and I have a message for you from Him,” said the man with milk-white clothes and a dazzling face, giving Maria a reassuring smile. This only confused and disturbed Maria all the more.
“Angel Gabriel? A message from God . . . for me? This was a clear case of mistaken identity”, Maria thought to herself and was not a little shocked when the angel responded, as if reading her mind.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said. “God knows all about you and your love for Him. He has sent me to tell you that He has chosen you to be the mother of the messiah, Israel’s deliverer whose appearance you have often prayed about”.
“But I don’t understand,” protested Maria, pulling the now wet veil over her head with her right hand. “I am a simple peasant girl and not a princess.”
“And that is precisely why God has chosen you to be the mother of His Son,” said angel Gabriel.
“But I am a virgin, I am not even married yet…” said Maria, another type of fear creeping in on her while her head continued to buzz with one thousand and one questions. In those days sex before marriage was unheard of, let alone getting pregnant. Children born out of wedlock could not be allowed into God’s Temple. Is that what the angel was suggesting? What about Joseph, her husband-to-be…how would she convince him that she had not been unfaithful to him? She might even be stoned to death! What would people say if they saw her, an engaged woman, standing so close to a strange man in public? Surely tongues might start wagging and sooner than later she might be dumped by Joseph. Poor Maria! Where could she go with all the shame? A good name was better than wealth. Or wasn’t that what the scriptures she had been trained in since childhood said?
“Maria,” the angel’s voice rang out, bringing her back to her senses. “God knows what this means for you. There is nothing too hard for Him. And to prove this, your cousin Elizabeth, the one people said could never have children, is now expecting a baby in three months. There is nothing God cannot do.”
On hearing this, Maria’s eyes grew bigger than a tomato. She felt so happy for Elizabeth, an elderly woman whose society had shunned her for being barren. The scripture portions she had memorised flashed through her mind in quick succession, but one stood out:
Behold the virgin shall
conceive and bear a son
and shall call him Emmanuel
She felt her heart leap with joy… and understanding. This verse spoke to her personally. She had often longed for the messiah and, with her family, discussed what type of person he would be. She had secretly nursed the desire of being the mother of the messiah, but she had never thought she would be the virgin mentioned. After all hadn’t the prophet been specific? She was just one among many virgins in Israel.
After some further thought Maria said, “I am God’s servant.” Then, with newly acquired determination she said, “I will do whatever God wants even if I don’t understand it.”
The angel left as suddenly as he had come, leaving Maria staring in the distance. The picturesque hills covered with flowers and the golden wheat swaying in the gentle morning breeze took on a new meaning. Even the birds singing and gliding in the clear blue sky seemed to share Maria’s secret. Maria hurried home. She could hardly wait to share the good news with her mother. Some barley harvesters looked up as Maria passed by. While some made fun of her, others admired her. However, they had one thing in common: they did not know that through this timid-looking “Princess in Tatters” God would change human history. Forever.
This story, titled The Princess in Tatters, is taken from Stories From Life, an anthology of short stories and poems by Ogova Ondego published by ComMattersKenya, Nairobi, Kenya, 2011.