Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Christmas

Papa Martin and the young woman

[Part 3 of Ruben Saillens’ le Père Martin, translated from French.]

A few homeward bound revellers passed by, but the old shoemaker barely glanced at them. The marketplace vendors came with their small carts. He knew them too well to pay much attention to them.

After an hour or two, his attention was drawn to a young, poorly dressed woman, carrying a child in her arms. She was so pale, so thin, that the old man’s heart was touched. Perhaps she made him think of his daughter. He opened the door and called her.

“Hey, you there!”

The poor woman heard him call and turned in surprise. She saw Papa Martin beckoning her to come.

“You don’t appear to be doing well, ma belle.” (“Ma belle” is the most commonly used expression in old Marseilles. It is used indiscriminately for the fishwives of the Vivaux market, for laundry women, and all women, young or old, rich or poor, who have anything to do in these quarters.)

“I’m going to the hospital,” replied the young woman. “I hope they will admit me with my child. My husband is out at sea and I have been waiting for him for three months.”

“Like I wait for my son,” thought the shoemaker.

“He doesn’t come and now I don’t have a sou left and I’m sick. I really need to go to the hospital.”

“Poor woman,” said the old man tenderly. “You’ll have a bit of bread while you warm up, won’t you?”

“At least a cup of milk for the little one. Take this, I haven’t touched it yet. Warm yourself and let me take the little bundle. I have cared for babies in my day, I know how to handle them. He is good looking, your boy. What! Didn’t you put any shoes on him?”

“I don’t have any,” sighed the poor woman.

“Wait then. I have a pair that will just suit him.”

And the old worker, amidst the protestations and thanks of the mother, went to find the shoes that he had looked at the night before and placed them on the feet of the child. They were just the right size.

Martin stifled a sigh however, in letting go of his best workmanship, the best he had done in his life.

“Bah!” he said, “I have no more need of them for anyone now.” and he returned to the window. He searched the street in such an anxious manner that the young woman was surprised.

“What are you looking for?” she asked.

“I am waiting for my Master,” replied Martin.

The young woman did not understand, or did not care to understand.

“Do you know the Lord Jesus?” he asked.

“Certainly,” she replied while crossing herself. “It’s not such a long time ago that I learned my catechism.”

“It is Him that I am awaiting,” said the old man.

“And you believe He is going to pass by here?”

“He told me so.”

“Impossible! Oh, how I would like to stay with you to see Him myself, if it’s true. . . But you must be mistaken. And then, I need to go to be admitted to the hospital.”

“Can you read?” asked the shoemaker.

“Yes.”

“Well then, take this little book,” he said, placing a portion of the gospel in her hands. “Read it carefully, and it will not be exactly the same as if you would see Him, but it will be nearly the same thing, and perhaps you will see Him later.”

The young woman looked doubtful, but took the book and left, saying thank you, and the old man returned to his place before the window.

— to be continued

Papa Martin and the street sweeper

[Installment two of a Christmas tale by Ruben Saillens. Original title: le Père Martin. Translated from French.]

Long before daylight the little lamp of the shoemaker was lit. He put more coal into his stove, where the fire had not yet gone out and busied himself preparing his coffee. Then he hurried to make his bed, then placed himself in front of the window to catch the first glimmers of daylight and the first passers-by.

Little by little the light appeared, and Martin soon saw a street sweeper, the earliest of all workers. He hardly noticed him, really, he had more important things to do than watch a street sweeper!

Nevertheless it appeared to be cold outside, fog kept appearing on the window and the sweeper, after a few vigorous sweeps of his broom, felt a need for more vigorous exercise to warm himself by slapping his arms with all his strength and stamping the ground, first with one foot, then the other.

“The good man,” Martin said to himself, “he’s cold out there. It’s a holiday today, but not for him. Why don’t I offer him a coffee?” And he tapped the window.

The sweeper turned his head, saw Papa Martin in the window and came closer.

The shoemaker opened his door, “Come in,” he said, “come and warm yourself.”

“I won’t refuse, thank you. What miserable weather, you would think we were in Russia.”

“Will you accept a cup of coffee?”

“Oh, such a good man you are. With pleasure. Better to celebrate Christmas Eve late than not at all.”

The shoemaker quickly served his guest, then returned to the window to look up and down the street to see if anyone was passing.

“What are you looking for outside?” asked the sweeper.

“I’m waiting for my Master.”

“Your Master? You are working for a chain then? It’s too early to be out checking on his workers. Besides, it’s a holiday for you today.”

“I was speaking of another Master,” replied the shoemaker.

“Ah.”

“A Master who might come at any time and who promised to come today. You must know his name; it’s Jesus.”

“I have heard tell of him, but I don’t know him. Where does he live?”

Papa Martin then began to tell the sweeper the account he had read the past evening, adding a few details, turning toward the window as he spoke.

“And that is who you are waiting for?” said the sweeper when he understood. “I don’t think you will see him in the way you expect. But no matter, you have helped me to see Him. Could you lend me your book, Mister . . .”

“Martin,” said the shoemaker.

“Mister Martin, I guarantee that you have not wasted your time this morning, even if it is hardly day. Thank you and good-bye.”

The street sweeper went on his way and Papa Martin again placed himself in front of the window.

Papa Martin

[First instalment of a Christmas story by Ruben Saillens, original title Le Père Martin, translated from French.]

You don’t know Papa Martin? He is only a shoemaker whose workshop, living room, bedroom and kitchen are all together in a little wooden building at the corner of Place de Lenche and rue des Martégales in the centre of the old quarter of Marseilles. There he lives, not too rich, not too poor, resoling shoes for everyone in the neighbourhood, for since his eyes have grown old he doesn’t make new shoes anymore.

The fishermen know him well, and the sellers in the marketplace, as well as the schoolchildren who pass by his door in swarms.

He has repaired shoes for them all, he knows where a shoe pinches. The mothers don’t trust anyone else to put solid heels on the shoes of their children who wear out the best store bought shoes in two weeks.

Papa Martin has recently gained a reputation for being devout. Since he began going to those meetings where they sing and pray and speak of God he has changed. He has a large book which you can often see him reading if you look in the window of his shop. He appears to be happier than he was before, this book seems to be the cause.

Papa Martin has had his sorrows. His wife died more than twenty years ago. His son went to sea and hasn’t returned in six years. As for his daughter, if one asks what has become of her a shadow passes over his face and he only shakes his head.

It is Christmas Eve. Outside it is cold and damp, but the shop of Papa Martin is warm and well lit.

He has finished his work and eaten his supper. His stove rumbles and seated in his wicker arm chair, glasses on his nose, he leans over the table and reads, “There was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7).

He stops here to reflect. “No place,” he murmurs, “no place for Him!”

He looks around the clean and neat little room, “There would have been room for Him here, if He had come. What happiness it would give to receive Him! I would have given them the whole place. . . No place for Him. Oh, why doesn’t He come and ask me for a place?”

I am alone, I have no one to care about. Everyone has their family and their friends; who is there in the whole world to care about me? I would love it if He would come to keep me company.”

“What if today was the first Christmas? If this was the night for the Saviour to come into the world? What if He would choose my shop for His coming? How I would serve Him and worship Him. Why doesn’t He show Himself today like He used to?”

“What would I give Him? The Bible says the Magi brought gold, incense and myrrh. I have nothing like that, they were rich, those Magi. But what did the shepherds bring? It doesn’t say, perhaps they didn’t have time. Ah, I know what I would give Him!”

With that, Papa Martin got up and reached up to a shelf where two baby shoes were carefully wrapped.

“This is what I would give Him, my best workmanship. The mother would be happy! But what am I thinking?” He sighed, “How can I imagine such things? As if my Saviour needs my shop and my shoes!”

The old man sank into his chair. It was getting late and it appears that he fell asleep.

“Martin!” said a gentle voice close beside him.

“Who’s there?” cried the cobbler. But as he looked towards the door, he saw no one.

“Martin, you wanted to see me. Watch the street tomorrow, from dawn until evening, you will see me passing by. Try to recognize me, for I will not make myself known to you.”

The voice ceased; Martin rubbed his eyes. The oil in his lamp had run out and it was dark. Midnight sounded from all the clocks: Christmas had come.

“It was Him,” said the old man. “He promised to pass by my shop. Was it only a dream? No matter! I will wait for Him. I have never seen Him, but haven’t I admired His portrait in all the churches? I will surely recognize Him.”

With those thoughts Martin crawled into bed and for a long time his mind was occupied with the strange words that he had heard.

— To be continued —

Ruben Saillens vs Leon Tolstoy

Ruben Saillens (1855-1942) was a well-known French Baptist pastor, writer and musician. My next few posts will consist of my translation of a story written by him that was first published in France about 130 years ago. Unknown to the writer, someone translated it into English. The English version, with no name attached, then found its way to Russia where it was discovered by Leon Tolstoy. Tolstoy then proceeded to render the story into Russian, with a few minor changes including changing the setting from Marseilles to some place in Russia. When a French translation of Tolstoy’s version appeared, Ruben Saillens wrote to Tolstoy, who replied with an apology in 1888.

Ten years later, seeing that the story was being published everywhere and attributed to Tolstoy, Saillens wrote again and received the following reply:

Sir,
As I wrote to you, in all the Russian editions of my writings it is said that the tale: Where there is love, God is there, is borrowed from a translation made from French (and is none other than your tale: Le Père Martin). As for the translations which are made of your tale in America and elsewhere, it is completely impossible for me to control them, inasmuch as more than fifteen years ago I surrendered all my copyrights for all my works that have appeared since 1881 in Russia as well as other countries.
With kindest regards
Leon Tolstoy
March 20, 1899

Was Tolstoy a plagiarist? He was definitely negligent if he made no attempt to discover who wrote the original tale that he then modified and sent out under his own name. However one can’t say that he deliberately plagiarized Saillens’ story; since it came to him in English, perhaps he took it to be an old English folk tale.

Most readers will be familiar with some version of the story of Papa Panov, the old Russian cobbler. I have tried to convey Saillens’ original French story as faithfully as possible. I would be interested in hearing your opinion: do you prefer Saillens’ story or Tolstoy’s?

Tidings of comfort and joy

These words, from the chorus of “God rest ye merry, Gentlemen,” nicely sum up the intended impact of the birth of Jesus Christ. The angel who first appeared to the shepherds said, “Fear not: for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” After the shepherds had seen the Christ child with their own eyes, “they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.”

How will we celebrate the Saviour’s birth this year? We cannot bring tidings of comfort and joy, unless our own hearts and lives have been filled to overflowing with comfort and joy. Perhaps that should be the beginning of our preparation for Christmas. May we, like David, ask God to “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me . . . Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.” (Psalm 51:10, 12). Then, says David, “O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise” (verse 15).

With each year that passes the world seems to be in more desperate need of tidings of comfort and joy. This is the season when every one who truly knows Jesus Christ, each in their own way, may take part in making known abroad tidings of comfort and joy. Gifts and food all have their part in this season, but they are not the essence of the season. I’m thinking more of words: words of cheerful greeting, of comfort to the lonely and sorrowing, of encouragement to the downhearted; words sung in carols and words written to those far away. May our words be words of comfort and joy.

How silently, how silently

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heav’n.
No ear can hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

(O Little Town of Bethlehem, 3rd verse, written by Phillips Brooks)

I have fond memories of the midnight Christmas services in the little  Anglican church of the Saskatchewan town where I spent my boyhood.  We gathered at 11:30, when all commerce and all other travel had ceased, and in the quietness of the midnight remembered the coming of our Saviour into the world.  There was anticipation in the air, and people who were never seen in church at any other time of the year, except perhaps Easter Sunday morning, would be present for this service.

Jesus was born in the night, when all around was quiet and still.  There was a flurry of activity in the stable as He was born, but no one else was aware of it until some excited shepherds rushed into town telling of a visit from the angels.

It must have also been night when the star guided the Wise Men to the house where Jesus was, probably some months later.  It was in the night that an angel told Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee, for Herod would seek to kill the young child.   Was it the same angel who warned the Wise Men in the night not to return to Herod?  Did Joseph confer with the Wise Men before he left that same night?  We can wonder about these things, but they are questions for which the Bible has no answer.  We only know that Joseph took his family that same night and began the long journey into Egypt.   Perhaps in the morning the people of Bethlehem were so intrigued by the presence of the strangers from the east that they did not immediately notice that Joseph and his family were gone.

God still works in the quietness, hidden from public view.  There is a beautiful passage in Job 33:14-18, spoken by Elihu, that describes this:

For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not.  In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed;  then he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction,  that he may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man.  He keepeth back his soul from the pit, and his life from perishing by the sword.

May we all seek a place of quietness at Christmas time and all through the year where we can hear God’s message for us.  A blessed and joyous Christmas to all who read this!

We need better Christmas stories

No, I don’t mean we should try to improve upon the stories in the Bible.  They are wonderful as they are, and true.  The problem I have is with the Christmas stories for children, and adults, that take some elements of the Bible stories, add lots of imagination and wind up sounding like fairy tales.

Take the story of the star leading the Wise Men from the East to Jerusalem.  To believe that, one would have to believe that these Wise Men were not very wise at all and could never have figured out on their own in what country and what city the King of the Jews would most likely be found.  In addition, if we believe that the star was directed by God, we would have to believe that God had temporarily forgotten where He had left the child.

The Bible informs us that the Wise Men saw the star in the East, in their home country, and travelled to Jerusalem to find the newborn King of the Jews.  That much they could figure out all by themselves.  It was when they realized that the baby was not in Jerusalem that they needed help.  And now the star appeared again and led them directly to the house in Bethlehem where they found Jesus.  This is the information the Bible gives us, and we are free to imagine their feelings and add descriptive details to the story.  But saying the star led the Wise Men to Jerusalem gives the impression that God didn’t know any more than they did.  Let’s not tell it that way.

Then there is the story of the wicked, hardhearted innkeeper.  The Bible doesn’t mention him at all.  In fact, the word that is translated as “inn” in the story of the nativity is translated as “guest chamber” in the account of the Last Supper.  In all probability the “inn” in the nativity story was a guest room built on top of a private home.  The stable wasn’t far away either, it would have been under the same roof, either alongside of the living quarters or directly below them.  When the Russian Mennonites came to Canada in the 1870’s they built their homes in much the same way as was done long ago in Palestine.   They built long houses with living quarters at one end and used the other half for their barn.  Thus, they didn’t have to go outside in the bitterly cold winters to milk the cow.  These barns were kept meticulously clean and very little odour was detectable in the living quarters.

Another aspect of the “Joseph and Mary alone in the stable” story is that we are left to assume that only Joseph was present to help Mary when the baby was born.  I don’t think that was very likely.  If the setting was actually a private home, with the guest chamber already occupied, there would have been at least two other ladies to offer their help and it wouldn’t be at all unreasonable to think that a midwife would have been called as well.  Joseph and Mary would seem to have been deemed as being less important persons than those in the guest chamber, but let’s not assume that they were complete social outcasts.

Some stories tell of Joseph and Mary (riding a donkey), coming over a hill and seeing Bethlehem in the valley below.  It takes a little searching of Bible reference books to discover the actual setting of Bethlehem.  The town is located on a rocky plateau and is in fact uphill from every direction.  The donkey is not mentioned in the Bible, but it is a very reasonable assumption that Mary would not have walked all the way from Nazareth in her condition.

Anyway, my aim is not to criticize the children’s Christmas concerts and the stories that they recite.  These are the kind of stories that are available, and have been around seemingly forever.  Nevertheless, the impressions left by these stories go with us throughout life if we don’t ever take a close look at their implications and what the Bible really says.

I just think it is time someone tried to write better Christmas stories.

The star, the king and the foreigners

While the children of Israel were trekking through the desert after leaving Egypt, the king of Moab called on Balaam to curse them.  Balaam found himself unable to curse them, rather pronouncing many blessings for them.  The most notable was the prophecy recorded in Numbers 24:15-19, where Balaam says “there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel” and “out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion.”

Many years later, when the Jews were in captivity in Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar had a dramatic dream, but when he awoke he could only remember that he had dreamed something that must be meaningful, but had no memory of what the dream was about.  He called the wise men, the magi, and demanded that they tell him the dream and its interpretation.  They replied that such a request was unheard of and impossible.  Whereupon King Nebuchadnezzar decreed that they should all be put to death.

Now Daniel was numbered among the wise men of Babylon and was included in the king’s sentence.  He went to the king and asked for time and promised that he would show the king the dream and its interpretation.  Daniel asked his three friends to help him pray that God would reveal this to him and their prayer was answered in a vision of the night.

Daniel returned to the king in the morning and revealed the dream of the statue and that it signified four empires that would rise upon the earth.  In the time of the fourth empire, God would establish an everlasting kingdom.  This brought Daniel into great favour with the king, and with the other wise men whose lives were spared.

Later, God revealed to Daniel when this everlasting kingdom would begin.  “Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks and threescore and two weeks” (Daniel 9:25).  The weeks spoken of here are weeks of years or 7 times 69 years, which is 483 years.

The wise men of Babylon kept alive the remembrance of the prophecy of Balaam and the prophecies of Daniel.  They understood that the promise of the Messiah, the King of the Jews, was not only for the Jewish people, but was the promise of salvation for all the world.  They counted off the years until the time drew near that Messiah should be born.  Then they saw a star that they had never seen in the sky before and knew that the time had come.

This brings us to the account in Matthew chapter two:

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”  (Verses 1 & 2)

Where else would one go to look for the newborn King of the Jews but to Jerusalem, to the palace of the king?  But the king at that time was not of the lineage of David, he was not a Jew at all but an Edomite, a descendant of Esau, and knew nothing of the birth of another king.  But he played along with the wise men for his own evil purposes and called for the priests and scribes who informed him that Messiah should be born in Bethlehem.  So Herod sent the wise men off to Bethlehem with instructions to bring him back word of the newborn king.

The wise men set out for Bethlehem, ten kilometres from Jerusalem, no doubt wondering how on earth they would find the seemingly unknown and obscure King of the Jews in this town.  As they left Jerusalem, the star that they had seen in their home country again appeared to them, and seemed to have a special message for them.  It moved before them, leading them to Bethlehem, down the streets of Bethlehem and finally stopped directly above one house.  Now there could be no doubt in their minds that they had found the Messiah.  They entered the house, saw the young child, fell down and worshipped him and offered their gifts.

We know the rest of the story, how the wise men took another way home to avoid Herod, how Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with Jesus before Herod could vent his fury by killing all the children of Bethlehem and its surrounding area from two years old and under.

However, the real wonder in this account is that God chose these foreigners to announce the birth of His Son to the king and priests and scribes in Jerusalem.  He showed a special favour to these foreigners in leading them directly to the house where Jesus was living.  He chose these foreigners to provide the means, through their gifts, for Joseph to take his small family out of harm’s way when Herod sought to take the young child’s life.

Thus, from the very beginning of Jesus’ life, the Bible reveals that He had not come for one specific group of people, but for all mankind, for all those who would recognize in Him their Lord and Saviour.

My parents lied to me

I don’t recall how it was taught, but right from my very earliest memories of Christmas I knew that most of my gifts came from Santa Claus.  Of course there were other gifts from family members, but the most important ones came from Santa Claus.

We lived in a rural area,  there were no malls or mall Santas.  We did most of our shopping from the mail order catalogues.  But Santa showed up at Christmas concerts to distribute gifts from his sack and he snuck into homes in the night before Christmas to deliver more gifts.

Then my parents told me that Santa Claus didn’t exist.  It was all just a story to amuse children.  I was shocked.  That meant that my parents had been lying to me all along about Santa.  What else had they been telling me that was just a story to fool little children?

I got over the shock and eventually I got over the suspicion, too.  My parents were actually straight arrow honest people.  But as I grew older, I resolved that I would never lie to my own children about things like Santa Claus.

Nowadays, when I stroll through a mall and observe a screaming tot being deposited on the lap of the mall Santa so the parents can have a cute photo, I wonder if the Santa story wasn’t always more for the amusement of the parents than for the children.

Maybe the Santa Claus myth is just a harmless fantasy, but still I don’t really think so.  It’s just another of the barnacles that has attached itself to the celebration of Jesus’ birth to distract our attention from the main character.

The best Christmas gift

We had our family Christmas gathering on Boxing Day.  There was grandpa, grandma, daughter, son-in-law, two grandsons and two granddaughters.  In the afternoon the table was laden with various snacks and we were all working away at reducing the quantities.

Evan, our youngest grandson, two years and one month old, picked up a big handful of  yogurt covered raisins and sat down beside his dad.   Then he picked one out, walked over to grandpa and gave it to him.   Grandpa said “thank you” and popped it into his mouth.  Evan smiled a big happy smile and went back to sit beside dad.   As soon as grandpa had finished eating the raisin, Evan was back to give him another.  Thus process was repeated until all the raisins were gone (Evan did eat a few himself, too).

Nobody prompted him, applauded him, or paid him much attention at all.  Except for grandpa who said “thank you” each time, and that seemed to be enough.  It was a purely spontaneous act of giving from the heart of a child.  And grandpa’s heart was warmed by this more than by any other gift he received that day.  (The other gifts were much appreciated also, but this was truly special.)

It got me to wondering – why can’t I be more like Evan?   I want to be, but far too often the busyness of life seems to get in the way.  But would that really interfere if I had a childlike heart?

Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:4).

 

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