“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength… Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
I am sitting in the corner near a small fire that Joseph has built. Mary is asleep on the other side of the cave and Joseph is next to her, placing his coat over her against the cold. I am barely aware of much else…this has been such a different experience already.
I try to take in all that I have seen and felt. I realize I have gotten lost in thought when I see in the shadows a dark-complected woman crawling through the cave door. She hesitates at the threshold, but not because she is unsure of her destination or her welcome. No, she seems to know exactly where she is and that she is free to be here.
There is something else present in her long pause at the entrance. Something that speaks of devotion, of hallowedness and respect. For whatever reason, this woman knows the value of this place and she is considering every step inside this dank, musty hovel as holy ground.
She looks at Joseph a long time with a smile. She sees the sleeping young Mary and tears well instantly in her deep dark eyes. She pauses here with a warm loving smile on her lips. Then she slowly turns her gaze toward the manger and the sleeping baby. Crawling without hesitation through the muddy straw, she comes to the side of the feed trough where Jesus lay sleeping. There is a definite sense of worship in her every move. She knows who this child really is.
Without even a hint of doubt as to the permissibility, the woman reaches into the manger and lifts Jesus gently to her chest. Her tears tell of devotion, her lip is quivering and her hands tremble. I can tell that she is doing all she can to control her emotions just enough to maintain composure. It is a battle she is slowly losing.
I wonder if the baby senses this because in an instant he looks at the woman and smiles and coos, as if to let her know he is comfortable with her and it is okay for her to be holding him. She smiles and does not even bother hiding her emotions or her tears.
Speaking to him in a language I don’t recognize immediately, (but would later realize was Albanian) she dotes on the newborn son of God as if he were her own. She speaks to him of love and affection and the many children she has touched in her lifetime.
“There were so many, so many my Lord. Always we made room but always there were more. Some of them were so sick…so very sick.” Her voice trails off and her shoulders heave beneath the blue and white robes she is wearing. When she can speak again, she whispers to Jesus… “Every child -every time I touched one of them- I was touching you, in my heart. All the love I have held for you in my lifetime I tried to pour out on them instead. I hope and I pray I made you happy and served you well.”
Jesus smiles a soft smile and his eyes open for just a brief moment. Little spit bubbles form in the corner of his mouth and this makes the woman laugh softly. She begins singing to him in Albanian, a song of worship and loving affection. She is rocking gently back and forth and singing this song to her Savior, and I am watching, mystified.
Her eyes close and she begins speaking names in the song…names I do not know, in a language I do not grasp. But the names seem to be painful to remember because she is weeping as she sings and there is a hint of hurt in her voice. Then she speaks to Jesus, “so many, so very many. So many were sick and no one would touch them and love them. So many were alone as they died and we tried dearest Jesus how we tried- to make them feel your love in their final hours. So many children like you who were orphans almost at birth. So many who would grow up without parents, or not grow up at all. In every case we tried to love them as if we were loving you.”
I watch this exchange for almost an hour. Nobody is stirring in the cave. Mary has been asleep for longer than any other time since Jesus’ birth earlier in the evening. The woman has kept Him quite occupied and quite happy during her extended visit. Mary would be appreciative, were she awake.
The woman is quiet now, rocking slowly on her knees with Jesus in her arms. She has practically bathed his tiny face with her tears and she has wiped them with her headscarf. Jesus never noticed…or at least didn’t mind. He has been asleep for the entire visit except for a few brief moments when He would stir.
I wonder who she is and who she was on earth. She is very pretty with her dark eastern European features and deep-set dark eyes. Her voice is dusky and her smile is brilliant white. She seems well educated and well versed. I have heard her conversing in Latin tonight as well as Greek and English and her native Albanian. Whoever she is, she is a wonder.
She frequently speaks of the children and adults she has helped at some point in her life. I wish I knew more because it sounds exciting and moving. It sounds like a life well spent in service of others. I watch her closely…
The woman has grown sullen now, something has pressed her thoughts in a direction she had not planned on going. Jesus has stirred ever so slightly and she is kissing his forehead. Her tears flow more freely now… “So many little ones like you who never see life. So many senseless deaths…and why? For convenience? For personal gain?
To end a life before it ever really begins…how selfish and tragic.”
She grows even more sorrowful now…clutching Jesus to her chest she weeps…” My Lord,” she whispers “how they will mistreat you. How they will ridicule and mock and carve you. What a painful death you will die for me, and for us all” With this the woman is undone and her crying turns to a soft gentle wail. Another quarter hour goes by as she holds Jesus and ponders His fate through tears.
She senses Mary is awakening and, not wanting to reveal much about Jesus’ fate to His mother, the woman regains her composure and places him gently back in the manger. She attempts to place a rosary around his tiny wrist but thinks differently of it. It makes no sense and she realizes it, but the habit makes her smile a bit. She whispers in his ear as she bends down to place him in his bed… “I have not always had the greatest faith, but I always believed in you. All I ever did, was for you and for the love of you, my Lord.”
She turns to find Mary standing behind her at a distance enough to give her room. Mary extends her hands to the woman and the woman sheepishly returns the affection. Before she knows it, Mary has embraced the woman in a hug. The woman is fighting tears as best she can. Mary has no idea because she is enveloped in the older woman’s robe.
Mary speaks after a long pause; her eyes are moist as she looks at the woman. “I am far from home, far from my own mother. You remind me so much of her, there is comfort in your countenance.” The woman shakes visibly at these words. She cannot contain her emotions very well and Mary is puzzled that she would elicit such a response from an older woman.
Mary tells her, “Thank you for taking care of Him tonight. I was so weary and this is the most sleep I have gotten in days. I needed it. I really do miss my mother tonight. I am just a young girl and this has been frightening to me. You have helped me by being here.”
The woman lowers her head in respect; she will not face Mary eye to eye. Mary places her tiny hand along the woman’s cheek. The woman looks up slowly. Mary smiles and mouths the words “thank you” silently. There is an eternal feeling in her “thank you’ that the woman picks up on immediately and she touches Mary’s hand with her own. It is a moment she treasures, standing there with the mother of her Lord on the very night of His birth. A dream come true for this woman.
A lifetime of living for others, of service to the son of this precious little teen-aged girl, has found its focus here tonight. God has, through whatever mystical means He has been employing here throughout this season of Advent, allowed this amazing servant of His to be here in the early hours of Jesus’ life. He has allowed her to touch Him as she had touched perhaps hundreds of thousands of children during her time on earth. He has allowed her to love Him as a child for a brief time, perhaps as a reward for the lifetime she spent in loving devotion to Him.
But I only realize all of this after the final exchange between Mary and the woman. An exchange that begins as she finally turns toward the cave door and Mary calls to her, “What is your name? I never asked, how are you known?” The woman pauses, and smiles, and then her answer comes and catches me off guard. “My name is Agnes…” she pauses here and then with a smile she says; “But I am called “Teresa. Teresa of Calcutta.” And with that, Mother Teresa turns, and leaves the tiny cave as she entered…on her knees.
“Anyone who desires to be served…must first serve.”-Jesus