A tale of magic and hope in a world ruled by the sword

The Sun went down as it always did. Red and gold gave way to indigo and the white glitter of stars. Benjamin waited, as he always did, for the prosody of daylight to make way for the poetry of night - and memory.

Benjamin's young companion, Joel, waited with him - wondering if the older man would recite again his tale of magic and mystery.

A grand story it was, and with the Galilean now preaching up and down the Jordan Valley, a story that was being retold more often - and not only by Benjamin.

It was about a king. A saviour born in a stable. The Messiah, no less: Announced by angels; attended by Parthian wizards; hunted high and low by Herod; and welcomed into this world by shepherds. Shepherds like Benjamin - just a boy at the time.

It was a story that glowed with hope . . . and danger - because the Romans crucified anyone they caught telling tales of saviours serving higher powers.

The Jews already had a king, and he answered to just one higher power - the emperor.

The ruler of the universe lived in Rome - not Jerusalem.

And Rome's yoke was a heavy one. Taxes - always more and more to pay. And woe betide the man who paid them late, because when the Romans came collecting they always liked to leave something behind. Something to remember them by. A farmer's body pierced by the points of their spears. A son's face laid open by the studded soles of their sandals. A daughter's belly swelling with the bastard child of some lecherous legionary.

Joel still carries the scars, and dreams of the day when he can repay the Romans for their kindnesses. It's why he's so fond of Benjamin's tale.

For when the Messiah comes and the prophecies are fulfilled Rome's might will be as dust in the wind. The Saviour shall drive all before him. His sword will drip with the blood of the oppressor. And Israel will be free.

It's why he still has such doubts of the Galilean: This carpenter's son from Nazareth; this Jesus.

It's all very well to tell people that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

But David's kingdom is not about to be restored by a handful of farmers and fishermen. Rome's legions will not be defeated by turning the other cheek.

"Describe it to me again, Benjamin. Tell me again of the Messiah's birth."

The old shepherd smiles into the darkness.

"Light and dark, Joel. Grandeur and humility. For a moment the veil that separates the material from the immaterial was lifted. We, the mortal creatures of time, beheld immortality: caught a glimpse of the eternal."

"But it was a king's birth, Benjamin. There was gold and frankincense and myrrh. Wise men from the East. You were the first to greet the Messiah: The saviour; the redeemer of Israel. You saw him."

"I saw a mewling child still smeared with his mother's blood. I saw three tired old men: Travel- stained and weeping. The air was filled with the stench of mortality, Joel. Kings are the children of kings, my young friend. But this child, this Jesus, was the Son of Man."

"But he shall be mighty, Benjamin. He shall lead armies. He shall destroy Rome!"

The old shepherd looked up into the night sky, recalling the star's brilliance; the angels' shout; the pain of knowing.

"There is a kingdom greater than Israel's, Joel. An empire larger than Rome's. And he, the Son of Man, the blood-smeared child wrapped not in purple silk, but in the rough swaddling-cloth of a peasant girl, will lead us there.

"You look for a warrior-king. A man of might upon a white horse. But all Death's horses are pale, Joel, and the Devil rides them.

"'Peace on Earth,' the angels said. 'Goodwill toward men.' The Galilean says it still."

"And the Romans will kill him for it, Benjamin."

"Yes, Joel. But he will not die."

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