These hands shape things. I learned the craft from my father. His father did the same thing. Bethlehem knows our pottery. Most everyone in the village has something we shaped. I put love into what I do; it is not simply a way to make a living. When you have a piece of my pottery, you have a piece of me.
I thought of this that night I first met her. She was so young to be so lonely. Her man was beside her, but she was beside her, but she was far from home, and a stable sure was no place to give birth. I was working late into the evening that night long ago. I went to the village well to fetch some more water to use to soften the clay. The streets were full of people who could find no other place to sleep.
Registering for taxes seems an endless demand of these Roman occupiers. Having to travel to one’s place of birth to report was only another burden.
As I drew the water, I heard the cry. It was the cry of a child. It seemed to come from the stable next to the inn. I walked over to discover her for the first time. Her man was stroking her forehead that was still framed with the sweat of labor.
The child was bundled up like I often wrap my pottery when I send it to another village when someone orders a piece. I wrap it because it is fragile. This child also seemed wrapped so as not to break.
I stepped toward the light of the lantern that hung from a post and noticed that she carefully placed him in a manger as if she were preparing to send him on some journey, much like my pottery. I asked them if I could do anything for them.
She smiled at me as if she were expecting me to be there. “What do you think of my little child?” she said.
“Why, he is beautiful,” I responded, “but how are you?”
“Oh, I’ll manage. I’m a bit surprised it happened this way, but I suppose I should get over being surprised by God.”
I wondered what she meant by this God stuff. “Do you know who he is?” she asked me. I found it to be a strange question. Why should I have any idea who this child born in the midst of animals was?
“Ma’am, the truth is I am a potter. I spend most of my time working with my clay. I’m not sure why you think I might know who your child is. Maybe I’ve been too busy of late that you know something I don’t know.”
I was trying to be nice to this dear young woman. I mean, why should anyone know who her child was?
“He is the child of God,” she said. “If you are a potter then you need to know that this child has come to shape the world with love.”
It was then her man spoke, “Mary, I don’t think this dear man understands what you are trying to say. You might want to help him out a bit.” To be fair, I understood the words just fine, it was the context I seemed to be missing.
Before she could say anything else, a group of shepherds appeared from nowhere. One of them walked right up next to me and knelt beside the manger. What in the world was this all about?
The shepherd said, “It is as the voices from the sky said it would be. The voices told us to come to a stable and find a baby lying in a manger. The voices then said that this child was the long-awaited Savior. At first, we were terribly afraid. I mean, this was unreal. But now, well, I see with my own eyes. It is real.”
“Savior,” I actually said the word out loud.
This Mary overheard my whisper. “Yes, Mr. Shaper of Clay. As I told you, he has come to shape the world with love. He is the One promised in our sacred Scriptures. He is the One.”
“Oh my God!” I said.
Mary laughed. “You said it well, dear potter, ‘Oh my God,’ indeed.”
I knew about the prophecies, but along with most people in Bethlehem, I had given up on such high-sounding promises that spoke of one who would redeem his people, Israel. And now the Savior was born right here, in a stable! Could this be happening, and in my village?
I went back to my shop and completed the pieces I was working on. Two particular pieces of clay kept feeling different in my hands as I shaped them on the wheel. It was as if someone else was holding onto my hands. Their shape was not as I first imagined. This was unusual. I always knew what shape my pottery was going to take before I ever threw the clay on the wheel. But with their two pieces, it seemed different.
A few days later, I walked back to the stable, only to find the family now living in a small dwelling nearby. I knew the people who lived there. They had a son named Joseph who moved away some time ago. He must be the man connected to Mary and the child. I walked up to the open door and saw a sight that I still find hard to believe.
There, standing before the couple, who were holding the baby, were these men dressed in elegant robes. One was kneeling and speaking in a tongue I did not recognize. What I did recognize was what they placed before the child. There was a small chest filled with some gold coins, and next to the chest were two urns. I recognized the smell of what seemed to be frankincense and myrrh. I knew that these were gifts usually reserved for royalty.
How did these strangers know to come to this place? As they walked past me, I sort of bowed. I did not know what else to do. I was not accustomed to these kinds of people coming to my little Bethlehem.
Then a thought came to me. I hurried back to my shop, almost running. I picked up one of the two pieces that contained within them the mystery that I had felt as I shaped them, and I placed it in a basket. Returning to the dwelling, I spoke words of greeting to the people of the house.
I walked up to Mary. “I see that word must have gotten out about your child. It seems that gifts are in order.” The next thing I did was not what I had planned.
Like the shepherd on that first night or the stranger that had just passed me, I too knelt down. I was not at that time a very religious man. Oh, I went to our small synagogue occasionally, and I had made the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem a few times at Passover, but truthfully, none of it held much meaning for me until that day I knelt beside him.
I looked up into the smiling face of this Mary. “Oh, so you too bring something to my child?”
I lifted up the basket and from it I took one of the two cups I had shaped. “As I was making this, something was different about it all. It was as if someone was guiding me. I have never felt that way before, so here, this is for your child. Consider it shaped by love for one who is to shape the world for love.” I smile back at her.
As I gave her the cup, she handed the child to the man I assumed must be Joseph. Then she seemed to cradle the cup as if it were her baby. She held it close to her almost as if she was going to rock it back and forth.
Then she looked into my eyes like I have never been looked upon before. “Oh, my dear new friend, what a gift this is. As he grows up, I will tell him of a man who shaped this out of love with his own hands. I will give it to him later to take with him on his journey. I am sure he will make good use of such a gift of love.”
That was many years ago. I later found the grown man. I heard of him from the street talk. I listened to stories about him giving people sight and restoring health to sick people. There was even one story about him turning water to wine. And another of him bringing a man back from the dead.
I listened to him teach every time I could find where he was speaking. And then I encountered him again that day in Jerusalem, when the men who were his closet friends asked me if I knew of a place where they could celebrate the Passover meal.
I had been selling some of my pottery at a small stand just outside the Temple gate. As they came by, I bowed, and one of them noticed this. Evidently realizing that my gesture meant that I was aware of who he was, one to the friends asked me the question about the meal.
In fact, I did have a relative in the city who I knew would be hospitable, so I arranged for them to have the Passover meal in a room above where the family lived. I even helped prepare the table that evening.
As he said the words that night over the meal, I recognized them from when my father used to say them. They were ancient words. I was standing in the doorway for I knew this meal was not for me but for them.
Then his eyes caught mine. I started to take my leave, but his eyes would not let me go. It was then that he lifted up a cup. It was my gift! The chalice I had given to Mary that night was now in his hands. He spoke strange words about a gift of love he was giving.
As he spoke, he looked first at those around the table, then he looked over at me. Did he know? How could he possibly know that it was me who had shaped what was now in his hands? It had to be my wild imagination.
In a few days it was all over. I watched from a distance. Why did they have to kill such love? I found his mother that afternoon at the bottom of that hill of death. What had he done to deserve crucifixion? Later, I saw this same Mary again cradle her son as if he were still her little child.
I don’t know what became of the cup that I made for him that he used that night. I only know I’ve kept the one like it that I shaped long ago, the night after he was born.
I often looked at it as I remembered the kneeling shepherds and the robed strangers with gifts. And, as I listened to Mary’s child teach and offer words of hope, I thought of my cup given to him. That night when he lifted my gift to talk about love, I remembered how my hands had felt that day I shaped that cup.
What kind of gift of love was this? Mary said the night of his birth that her child was to shape the world for love. What would come of that love now?
I still remember what he said when he lifted my gift up that night at the meal with his friends. “Take … Drink … This is for you.” He was giving them a gift.
And the day Mary held his broken body, I thought of my gift to her and to him. As she held him that day beside a cross. I remembered the night at the manger and how she had wrapped him like some piece of fragile pottery. I could tell from the way she cradled his broken body in her arms that he was still her little child.