It's been nearly a year since I've posted anything. Health issues...mine and other's, a career transition for my husband, the return of our kids from the mission field, and my father's death have really consumed my time. This has been a season of both loss and great blessing. And, through it all, God has been, and is, good. Truly I have much for which to thank Him.
As we begin to focus again on the miraculous and gracious birth of our Lord, I would like to share the following with you.
The Return of the King
One night, long ago when I was but a child, a curious figure sat awhile at our fire.
The December wind roared and whistled down the chimney, and we huddled close to the fender to grasp at the flame’s warmth. Cold crept silently in beneath the ancient windowsills and through the keyhole. Dark had fallen early; snow was swirling and dancing over the moors when the knocker clattered against the splintery oak door.
“And who can this be on such a night?” Mother wondered as she lifted the brass latch.
Blown in by the wind itself, a gnarled old man entered, accompanied by an aged sheepdog. Then the door slammed shut like some medieval portcullis, and our little castle held the winter storm at bay once more.
“Let me take your coat!” Father had already begun to brush the fine snow from the old man’s shoulders, as he led him toward the fire. The old dog plodded along behind like a faithful retainer accustomed to walking in his master’s shadow. He sank down beside him as Father offered the man an arm chair close to the hearth.
The old man said not a word as Mother brewed a fresh pot of tea and cut and buttered slices of fragrant soda bread. He warmed his hands at the smokey peat fire and seemed somehow to draw strength from it. We children hung back at the edges of the drama that was unfolding, not wanting to miss any of it.
Finally, as Mother set the tea tray on the little folding table next to his chair, he turned and spoke.
“Aye, and ‘tis a comfortable fire on a cold night. ‘Tis not everyone who would take in a stranger on such a night…Nor would they welcome his companion.”
“It would be a poor neighbor, indeed,” Father answered, “who would turn away either man or beast in this foul weather. What brings you to brave the elements tonight?”
“A lamb has strayed from my flock, and if ‘tis not recovered quickly, it will perish in this snow and wind. King,” he said, indicating the dog, “has led me as far as your door, and if we may rest awhile and warm ourselves, we will continue to search for it.”
“Surely,” said Mother kindly, “you are welcome. Stay as long as you must.”
The man quietly broke a piece of bread and bowed his head for a moment, then reached and shared it with his dog, scratching behind its ears affectionately as they ate. When he had finished eating and had at last set his teacup back on the tray, he turned to us again.
“You have been generous and kind,” he said, “and if you permit I will repay that kindness. Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, I will give you.”
And with that, he began his tale.
“There was once a ruler,” he said, “ who returned to his own kingdom after doing battle in a far country. Mounted upon a pure white steed, he pranced along, clad in a snowy robe, jeweled sword at his side, golden spurs upon his heels. Heralds marched before him to trumpet his arrival. As they descended the mountain overlooking his capital city, they could see it bathed in light, haloed by its reflection from the clouds above.
Advancing to the thoroughfare leading to the main gate, they found it congested with traffic of all sorts—carts and wagons, horses, people on foot. Pilgrims were resolved to enter the city before nightfall; no one paid any heed to the king, though the heralds blew their trumpets and shouted to get their attention. Unguarded, the city gates stood open, and travelers crowded into the capital.
The open market was busy, busier than usual, and throngs of people were pressing toward a throne set in the center. There on the king’s golden throne sat a stranger, dressed in crimson velvet robes edged with purest white ermine. He had a benevolent smile, and a hearty laugh as he saluted those who milled about the throne, but his eyes were cold…black and steely. Parents seemed to be offering up their children for the usurper to bless as he beckoned them to bring the little ones to him. One or two perched on his knee, fascinated by his curly white beard, and whispered in his ear as he bent toward them.
The fragrance of precious spices and herbs—cinnamon and ginger and peppermint—mingled with heady musk and attar of roses. Bells chimed in the distance. Long lines of buyers crowded ‘round the stalls, jostling for attention, as they purchased imported foods, expensive clothing, exotic perfumes, and amusing trinkets for their children. Many struggled under their burdens as they carried bags of gaily wrapped parcels back to their homes, brushing past the king as though he were invisible. They seemed not to notice him at all in their anxiousness to leave the frenetic sights and sounds of the marketplace.
‘You, there!’ the king interrupted, as he tapped one man on the shoulder. ‘What is the occasion for all this frenzy? And who sits on the throne of the king?’
Impatiently, the man answered and gestured with his free hand at the festively decorated lampposts, ‘‘Tis the king’s birthday, sir. Ye must know that we celebrate always at this time of year—unless ye be an alien. ‘Tis always been done, ever since he left us to do battle against the dragon. And M’lord Niklas,’ he said, indicating the man on the throne, ‘he is regent here while the king is away. We do him homage, and he dispenses the king’s blessing in his place.’ Having finished his speech, the man shifted his load to the other shoulder. ‘Might I go, sir? My wife and little ones await me before nightfall.’
Dismissing him thoughtfully, the king dismounted and began to lead his horse through the hoards of people until he reached the pleasure dome, the source of the light that had attracted his eye when he first sighted the city. A glittering marquee invited him to enter…HAPPY BIRTHDAY…HAPPY BIRTHDAY…HAPPY BIRTHDAY… it beckoned.
‘Ah, I have been expected after all,’ the king murmured. ‘Perhaps word has come of my arrival, and my subjects will greet me here.’
At that, the doors opened and a group of revelers emerged, laughing and carelessly elbowing past the king. ‘Happy birthday!’ they shouted to each other as they went their separate ways, ‘Happy birthday!’ Yet, strangely, none seemed to notice the one whose birth they were celebrating.
Inside, bodies whirled as boisterous dance music blared from the ballroom. Lights oscillated with the sound as they reflected from gold lamè and shiny satin. The dancers’ garments vied for attention with the king’s royal robes; the heralding trumpet was lost in the beat of the drums and the resounding notes of the keyboard.
Disappointed by the dancers’ failure to recognize their own sovereign, he turned and led his horse farther along the street . His subjects all seemed to be celebrating the day of his birth…Had no one prepared for the day of his return?
Through the cold, crisp night air, the sound of singing reached his ears. Further down the street, he could see a band of people singing as they walked along. Occasionally they paused before one house or another and sang until the occupants opened their doors and blessed them with food and good will. As they came closer, the king could see that they were dressed alike, wearing the garb of his own household, each wearing the emblem of the king’s coat of arms upon his heart. They were bantering and laughing, singing birthday songs, and yet…and yet, they passed him by as though they did not even know him.
Houses glowed inside and out with strings of multi-hued lights and colorful figures depicting scenes from his own life. One bore a scene of his royal birth…but another boasted a spot-lighted figure of the pretender who sat upon his throne in the marketplace. Even the trees themselves were leaved with lights, each trying to outshine its neighbor and glorify its own master.
Within, he could see more trees decked with lights and banked with brightly wrapped presents that were being opened by both children and adults. It was a festive, cheerful scene until he heard the voices. Children whined with selfishness and discontent, adults snapped with irritation at each other and at their children, all in the name of the king’s birth. Saddened, he turned away.
Finally, he approached the great cathedral at the end of the city square. Angelic music poured from brightly lit doors as people entered to worship. The scent of incense mingled with pine boughs as he mounted the marble steps to that great chamber where he had been christened so many years ago. Now, on the anniversary of his birth, he was entering it again as the victorious defender of his people. Waving his heralds aside, he stepped confidently into the cathedral. He saw there, hanging above the altar, a portrait of himself as a infant. Surely here he would be recognized and welcomed! But, no, as he neared the sanctuary, an usher barred his way and said that all the seats had been filled. There was no room for him.
Rejected by his subjects, the king mounted his horse and rode to his palace. Crenulated walls and turrets loomed darkly before him. There was no halo of light there, no merry or inspiring music, no gaiety, no gifts. The place stood bleak and deserted except for a shaft of light from the window of the gatekeeper’s cottage and a curl of smoke from its chimney.
Dismounting, the king approached the weathered door and knocked. Immediately, the door was flung open and the face of the old gatekeeper lit up in surprise and welcome.
‘Your Majesty!,’ he shouted happily, ‘You’ve come back! I always knew you would! Come in, come in!’ At that, the loyal old man bowed himself to the floor before his sovereign.
Reaching down, the king gently grasped the man by his elbow and raised him up. ‘Of all my subjects,’ he said. ‘only you have faithfully awaited my return. You celebrate not my birth, but my victorious return to reclaim my kingdom. Today, I will sit with you at your table…and tomorrow, you shall sit at mine. Well done, good and faithful servant. No more will I call you servant, but friend and brother.’”
The fire had burnt low, and although I was tired, my heart was stirred by the story the old shepherd had told. We urged him to stay till morning, but he insisted that he and the dog must continue to search for that one lost sheep. So, with a slice of Mother’s good bread wrapped in a napkin in his pocket, he and King set off into the snowy darkness. But he promised some day to return.
And I…I am waiting.
© Kathleen Wynveen
Please contact me for permission to use this if you wish.