Friday, December 24, 2010

The Combat Master's Christmas Tale

Over the years, the nature of my work required that I spend too many Thanksgivings and Christmases in lonely, empty buildings away from my wife and children. In spite of that -- or perhaps because of it -- Nativity Day has acquired a taste of nostalgia and longing such that I can identify with those who must spend the day away from those they love most.


I dedicate this story to all of them. I hope I remember it well enough to do them the honor they deserve. Further, I hope that each of you will find something of your own story in it.


Some, no doubt will think my story is an empty fabrication: a mere fancy of my tired, old and idle mind. But such people cannot know that the Nativity Day atmosphere which I breathe shines bright with promise and weighty with hope. 


The ignorant will say it's magical, but its power draws on something much deeper and more powerful than magic. The word miracle comes much closer to describing it. In the Nativity celebration, life surpasses legend, and we find that we embrace more freely those things that ought to be. 


*****

It was the eve of our Nativity Day celebration, and for once, the mountain was shrouded by blizzard instead of mist. The weather had been clear when I started out to bring a small gift to my teacher, the master of all combat arts, ancient and modern. As I climbed, the snow fell softly at first, then the flakes became so thick and the wind gusted so strongly that it became nearly impossible for me to see my way.

White flakes started to crust the thick, full beard of the hardy Scot as he thanked me for my present. Then he said, "Ye'll not be going home in this weather, lad. Come with me."

He led me to his well-concealed stone cottage, and welcomed me into his home that was so much like its builder and owner: austere, yet sturdy, honest and warm. The heat of the fire and a couple of tankards of mead made the silence between us feel easy and friendly.

I watched the warrior follow his nightly ritual. First, he field stripped, cleaned and oiled his M-14. Then he did the same with his Model 1911. He hung them in their places above the mantel.

Then he dressed the edge of his claymore with a pocket hone, oiled it and hung it over the mantel where the warmth would drive away any moisture. Finally, he turned his attention to his dirk, but when he finished with it, he laid it by his side, for since his wife died, it was the only companion he took to his bed.

When he finally spoke, the combat master's Scottish brogue was low and sonorous. "Clodhopper, this night reminds me of a Christmas eve ever so long ago . . . " Then he told me this tale:

The enemy hated our faith and made war on us to snuff it out. My companions and I were fleeing a force that outnumbered us twelve to one. I was wounded, and my pace slowed my brothers-in-arms so that we surely would be caught. 


The ground lay bare that December 24th, but the chill wind bit deeply as the sky darkened. Well knew I that the enemy needed no snow to track us, for the blood that dripped from my wounds left trail enough to follow.


Finally, I insisted that they go one way and I another. They would not have done it, had I not outranked them, and even then they almost stayed. But for the beginning snowfall, they probably would not have left me alone.


I finally prevailed by insisting that the snow would cover both our trails, and I could hide much more easily alone. They were a stout bunch who hated to leave me, and they would doubtless have stayed, had they known the true extremity of my weakness.


With the last of my strength, I hacked off some pine boughs with my claymore and dragged them under the low-lying branches of a pine tree. Then, I scooped out a nest in the deep, insulating carpet of pine needles, rolled up in my great kilt, and pulled the pine boughs over me, expecting that I would not live til morning.


The snow fell deep and fast, covering my blood trail and the tree that provided my shelter. Chills and fever took turns on me, that night, and at some point I heard the heavy boots of those who hunted me crunching through the snow mere feet from my hidey hole. The echo of their curses sounded in my fevered brain long after they had passed.


Then, at some point, I must have slept. I must have slept, for I had the strangest dream . . . if, indeed, a dream it was.


In my dream, I stood in a vast hall filled with many tables that fairly creaked under the load of a great and hearty banquet. About each table sat such a company of men as has never gathered in this life.


They reminded me of my companions -- good, true, honest and faithful men -- warriors all. The men were a merry lot as they ate and drank, but their laughter was not rude and their manner was courteous, filled with mutual love and respect.


Then I espied at the head of the hall, a dais that supported a wondrous manly throne of rich, carved oak. Upon the throne sat the King, beholding with sincere approval His warrior host.


Realization dawned upon me that I stood in the Hall of Valiant Warriors who served the true and rightful Warrior King. Pagan warriors had heard of the place, and they corrupted its beauty and simplicity in their myths of Valhalla, but now I stood in the actual midst of the great warrior-servants of the true King.


And how shall I describe Him, Clodhopper? Authority without arrogance . . . dignity without pride . . . and His eyes filled with the kind of compassion you find only in those who have suffered much. 


Then my eyes fell upon His wrists and the deep scars from the nails that had wounded Him in His battle for the souls of men. On that day, a Roman spear pierced His side, but the dark lord's lance shattered into splinters against His mighty Soul.


Now and then, one or another would rise from this table or that and bear a plate of food to the dais and bid the King eat. He received the offer with grace and affection, but He, Himself, did not even once take a morsel of the great feast.


I started at the voice of one I had not noticed beside me. "Welcome, Mac."


"Y' know me, then. But you have the advantage, for I know you not." 


"You may call me 'Ben'."


It amazed me that one of these mighty men should recognize one such as I. Even more amazingly, he assured me that he not only knew me, but that he and some others had eagerly awaited the chance to trade stories with me.


Before I could answer, the hall grew suddenly quite still. The men's gaze followed that of their King to the far end of the hall, where a pitiful, naked, bedraggled wretch limped through the portal.


No square inch of the man's body was without some laceration, bruise or swelling. Some wounds looked fresh, but others stank from putrefaction.


I watched in wonder as he tried to approach the King's dais, but his strength failed him. He collapsed to the floor in an aisle between two rows of tables.


Two warriors closest to where he fell rushed to him, one on each side. I thought that perhaps they would carry this beggar out of their assembly and away from the sight of their King. Instead, the most singular thing happened.


The mighty men gingerly lifted the beggar to his feet, and with their arms under his, conducted him slowly to the King. They treated him with the tender gentleness that you may have the privilege to observe in men of great courage and strength.


As they did so, the King stood to His feet, and every man in the hall arose and snapped to attention.


When they came to the foot of the dais, they stopped at a crystal fount filled with clear, pure water. There they bathed the beggar's wounds and the purity of that water healed his flesh. Clotted blood, bleeding wounds and putrefying sores shrank away and became faint battle scars, much like those borne by all the mighty men in the hall. 


Now I knew that he was not a beggar, but a soldier most recently fallen in the service of the King. He knelt before his sworn Sovereign who said, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."


At that, his fellow-warriors draped him with a great kilt just like those worn by everyone in the company, and the King presented him with a sword and a shield. "These you shall bear for me in the great and final day of battle."


I turned to my companion, "Tell me, Ben, why am I here. Like yon man, I entered wounded and filthy, but I do not feel a part of this company."


"It is not yet your time, brother. You have come here because although you must continue the fight, we do not want you to battle on without hope. There is a seat reserved for you here, and one day you shall feast among us as we gather strength for the final victory."


The words "final victory" chased round and round in my fevered mind as consciousness slowly forced itself upon me. Thick snow blanketed the forest that long ago morning of December 25th. I arose from concealment, still weak, still fevered and sick, but alive and filled with renewed purpose and devotion, for I had seen a wounded and broken warrior honored by the King.

My teacher fell silent after the story, and so we sat again, both of us lost in thought. Then suddenly, "So, Clodhopper, tell me now a story of your battles. I long to hear of a great victory you've won.

I cringed with shame. "I have no great victories, and no real battles to recount. That's not what my life has been like at all." He did not say a word, but only fixed me in his gaze until I spoke again.

"All right, you want to know what my life is really like? I'll tell you a typical story from when I was a young believer."

The year after I surrendered my own life to the King, I accepted the challenge to carry my Bible to school every day, as testimony to my faith. My biology teacher saw my Bible, and he singled me out for ridicule in front of the class.


One day, he even falsely accused me of vandalizing a nature trail that he had made -- again, in front of the class. I never engaged the man in battle, and after that year, I had only limited contact with him.


At the end of my junior year, he proctored an exam I was taking. I finished it early, and to occupy myself, I wrote out John 14:1-6 on the scratch paper along with a little poem I had memorized. As I looked it over, a shadow fell across my desk, and the biology teacher stood over me.


He picked up my papers, no doubt thinking that I had smuggled some crib notes into the exam room. He stood there and read the Scripture passage and the little poem by R.C. Trench:

   Weep not for broad lands lost,
   Weep not for fair hopes crossed.
   Weep not when limbs wax old.
   Weep not when friends grow cold.
   Weep not when death must part thine
   And the best loved heart,
   Yet weep, weep all you can.
   Weep, weep because thou art a sin-defiled man. 


Then the unbelieving teacher said, "Interesting," and returned my papers to the desk. Later, during my senior year, he exacted petty revenge upon me for whatever crimes he imagined I had committed against him.


At that time, he made me look and feel a fool, and he humiliated me in front of others. 


I tell you this story because it's fairly typical of my life. So often when I try to stand for what's right and true for the sake of my King, others have put me down, I've lost a job, or been mocked and scorned.


I cannot pick up a sword and go after these people. It's not the way my life has fallen. My story is not like yours, a tale of taking part in great battles and facing deadly enemies with rifle or blade.

The combat master fixed his eyes upon mine as he asked, "Did you rejoice?"

"What?"

"Did you rejoice when the teacher humiliated you?"

"Uh . . . well . . . no."

"Acts 5:41 tells us that after the authorities had publicly  beaten and humiliated the apostles, they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name."

I remained silent as he continued. "You must understand that the deepest wounds a soldier carries, no mortal eye can see, and no human surgeon can heal. Though you've not fought with weapons such as hang on my wall, you carry deep wounds of that sort, as well.

"Forget not the King's cross. He lifted no material weapon, and He suffered shame and humiliation for our sakes. And it looked for all the world to see as though He suffered a great defeat amid the scornful laughter of those who mocked.

"And yet, though it appeared a loss, it turned out the most decisive victory in the War of the Ages -- a great strategic victory that the King won naked, wounded and alone without rifle or sword.

"That is why He honored that poor, naked and broken warrior in my dream. Because that warrior followed his Sovereign.

"As our King won the great strategic victory, so you and a multitude of your brothers have won many tactical victories in His name. Those victories may have looked like defeats --they may not have even looked like battles -- but they were victories nonetheless because His cross supports and affirms them.

"One day the sheer weight of those victories will crush what remains of the Kingdom of Darkness, and all the world will know our King's reign of peace, justice and truth. In that day, you will need no medals, for your scars will tell the story of your battles and how you emerged victorious.

"I have known many warriors, and I have trained many pupils through seemingly countless years, and many times I have looked at one or another and thought to myself, 'This one reminds me of the honored warrior in my dream.'

But tonight, Clodhopper, tonight I fancy that the honored warrior looked a lot like you."

I had nothing more to say, and it was just as well, for the lump in my throat was too large to let a single word past.
*****

That's how  I remember one particular Nativity Day eve that I spent away from my loved ones. I missed them that night, but I would not trade my experience in the combat master's cottage for anything. Anything except maybe to hear the King say to me, "Well done . . . ."

It's a funny thing, how I've thought of my family during the Nativity celebrations when I could not be with them. Yet, those holidays when I am with them, I also cherish the lonely times, when the kind words and good wishes of a good, true and strong friend shone in my darkness like a beacon from the King.

Tonight, I will be in church with my wife and youngest daughter. I will listen to Christmas favorites played on Celtic harps by young women in lovely dresses. But my thoughts and wishes will also be with the lonely warriors who, away from home, struggle in the dark with enemies seen and unseen.

Please accept my wish to you, dear brothers and friends, for a most happy and blessed celebration of the King's birth. And if you feel lonely, defeated, wounded or downhearted in any way, please remember this as the Christmas eve that you climbed the snow-capped mountain and waited out a blizzard before the fire of a warrior whose heart is as great and strong as the mountain he calls home.

And if you ever doubt the value of your efforts, remember that after you listened to his story and he listened to yours, you heard him say, "Tonight, I fancy that the honored warrior looked a lot like you."

4 comments:

The Warrior said...

About the best Christmas story I've ever read! I loved it all the way through, and it touched and reached me more than you might even know. It's difficult to describe just how good this was.

God bless!

Gravelbelly said...

Glad you liked it. I know some may think it's overly-sentimental, but I hope the few for whom it's meant will -- like you -- gain encouragement and strength for the fight.

olde.fashioned said...

Wow...did you write that?

Gravelbelly said...

Yes, olde.fashioned, I did write it (in all false humility).

Nativity Day blessings to you . . . and tell your mom I wish her the same.