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Ash Wednesday

For tonight’s Ash Wednesday service I wrote a monologue, retelling the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) from the perspective of one of her accusers.  I admit that I have embellished some of the details of the story (such as knowing what Jesus wrote) but I don’t feel any guilt about that!

~~~

I didn’t know her personally, you know, but I knew who she was.  I knew about the rumours, the reputation.  I knew what she’d done. What they said she’d done anyway.

I knew about him too, but he was a well respected public figure so we tried to keep his name out of it.  It wouldn’t go down well if he got caught up in the scandal.

It just makes me sick, you know, when people do things that are so patently wrong.  The law is clear, you don’t do it!  The punishment is clear too.  None of us enjoy this part of the job, it’s brutal, but someone has to do it and for now that’s us.

We got the tip-off from a neighbour early that morning.  Said she’d seen her sneaking in late at night but not out again so we knew she was likely to still be there.

As we entered the house I caught a glimpse of his face.  He looked at her with such tenderness, such love in his eyes.  But as soon as he spotted us that love turned to anger and he thrust her in our direction, “get this woman out of here” he shouted.

So that’s what we did.  We’d caught her in the act so there was no question that she was guilty.  You could see it in her eyes, she knew what she’d done, she knew what was coming.

We got to the temple just as the sun was beginning to creep over the hills, its golden light shone on the pale walls and scattered off the healing pools.

There would be no healing here today though, not for her.  This was the end of the road – the law had been broken and the punishment was death.

As we arrived in our little corner of the temple – out of the way so the tourists didn’t get put off – we tied her up and began to look around for suitable stones, not too big, not too small.  But as we turned back towards her we saw that she was not alone.

Someone was actually bending down and talking to her!  Perhaps it was one of the pilgrims who didn’t know what was going on but no, he looked like a Rabbi – surely he couldn’t misread a situation like this?

As he stood up and turned towards us I recognised his face, this was that new hotshot rabbi that everyone was talking about, the one who’d been making waves all through the countryside.  

Not the most popular chap around here if I’m honest, everyone wanted to be the one to get the better of him, to outwit him with some clever theological argument.  So far no-one had managed it. 

As we looked at each other we realised that maybe this could be our chance.  There was no loophole here, she’d committed the crime, been caught in the act, and the punishment was clear.  He couldn’t wriggle out of this one surely?

“Teacher”, our boss said to him, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now, what do you say?”  Seemed like a pretty watertight argument to me!

We all waited with baited breath see what he would say, would he step aside and let us stone her?  Seemed unlikely given what we knew about him.  But surely he wouldn’t contradict Moses’ teaching?  Not here in the temple with dozens of witnesses?

For a moment he looked at us with such deep sadness in his eyes then, glancing back at the terrified woman behind him, he knelt down and started writing in the dust with his finger.

It took a moment to work out what he was writing, it wasn’t easy to make out, but I think it was a verse from the Torah,

You are dust, and to dust you shall return” 

What did that mean?  He didn’t seem to be in any rush to answer our question and and after a while it seemed like he was just stalling for time so we kept pressing him.

“Come on Rabbi, what do you say?”

Slowly he stood up, brushed the dust off his hands and looked each of us in the eye.

Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her

It took a moment to sink in, but when it did it was like I’d been struck by the rock I was holding.  Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

I looked at the woman again, really looked this time.  I saw the blood trickling down her cheek were we’d struck her.  I saw her hands, delicate fingers hardened by a life of hard work.  Through a rip in her dress I saw the stretch marks from a past pregnancy.  I didn’t know she had children, what would happen to them now?  I no longer saw the guilt, I saw the person.

And then I looked back at Jesus, and his eyes were like a mirror into my own soul.

I saw the bitterness I’d kept bottled up from all those times I didn’t get my own way.  I saw the fear that masqueraded as zealousness for God.  I saw the lack of compassion, of understanding, for anyone who didn’t agree with me.

I saw all those mistakes I’d made, mistakes I’d written off as ‘character flaws’, and suddenly I could see how others had been hurt by them.

As this washed over me in a flood of regret and sorrow, the stone in my hand felt like it weighed as much as one of the huge blocks that made up the temple wall.

I looked back towards the woman, but I couldn’t look her in the eye.  The guilt and shame I felt was so overwhelming I just turned and walked away.

As I walked the stone slipped from my hand and with it went the weight I’d been carrying around for so, so long.  The burden of guilt that had built up inside was suddenly washed away.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

And from that day on that is what I tried to do, each day.  Of course I still made mistakes, who doesn’t.  But in acknowledging them, and repenting of them, they don’t weigh on me as heavily as they once did.

I even went to see the woman again, to try and put things right there.  But when I saw her from a distance, playing with her daughter, she looked so happy, like Jesus had given her a second chance in life. So I didn’t go any closer.  

I knew exactly how she felt.
© Rich Clarkson 2017

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Ten green bottles…

I’ve written this for my sermon today, it’s the story of the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus where only one came back to say thankyou.  I started wondering what it would be like to tell the story from the perspective of one who didn’t go back to say thanks.

Simple costume (towel headband, no stole) to identify character

It’s hard, being caught in the middle like that. Neither one thing nor the other.  We used to joke about it! We had to joke about it, we would have just given up otherwise.  There were ten of us, ten outcasts, ten refugees, ten…nobodies. Ten green bottles, went the joke – which of us would fall first?

I remember when I first realised what was happening. The rash which led to the stares which led to the avoidance, which led to the exile.  I had been happy, I had a good job, a lovely family, it was all taken away so quickly.  The problem is that once you’ve got that label you can’t shift it. That’s how they define you – you’re an outcast, an untouchable, one of “them”  So we had to stick with our own kind, our new own kind.

There were ten of us, some from Galilee, some from Samaria and we hung about in the scrubland between the two regions.  They hated each other so not many people crossed between them which suited us just fine.

The great irony is that before all this I had treated the Samaritans just like my people were now treating me!  I’d kept my distance, I’d told jokes behind their backs, even laughed about ‘Samaratianitis’ being infectious. Now that I think about it I was proper horrible to them.  The Samaritans in our group are just normal people, once you get your head round the accent they’re no different from the rest of us.  So there we were, ten nobodies, living a half-life in no-mans-land.  Ten green bottles, waiting to fall.

Then we started to hear the rumours. Rumours of a healer, Rumours of a Rabbi who wasn’t afraid, Rumours of a way out.  Now these kind of rumours fly around our community all the time so you have to take them with a pinch of salt – people with no hope will take whatever crumbs of hope they can get.  But these rumours wouldn’t go away so, without anything better to do, we kept an eye out for this itinerant young Rabbi.

One day the ten of us were sat in the dust, trying to find whatever shade we could behind the old wall when we saw movement in the distance.  There was someone coming towards us, heading South towards the village. I’m sure he spotted us about the same time we spotted him but, unusually, he didn’t turn away.  He just kept plodding on through the heat towards the village.  When he got close enough to hear us we began our usual begging routine: “Spare some change mate?”

Now usually there are three types of responses to this.  Some chuck a few coins towards us before scuttling past, some look guilty but walk on by anyway, and some just walk past like we weren’t even there.  This guy was different, he didn’t ignore us but he didn’t get any money out either. He just…stood there, like he was waiting for us to say something.

What was that Rabbi’s name? Joshua? Jairus? Jesus! “Jesus!” We called out. He smiled.  “Jesus! Master! Have mercy on us!” we cried, like our lives depended on it, which, I guess, they did. “Have mercy!”  He took a step forward. Instinctively we took a step back.  “Go!”, he called out. Our hearts began to sink. I’m not sure I could cope with yet another disappointment. “Go…and show yourselves to the priests”.  We all knew what that meant, the priests were the only ones who could say that we were better, say that we were no longer unclean, no longer outcasts, exiles, refugees.

Excitedly I looked at my hands, expecting them to be miraculously better but…they weren’t.  How many hours, how many long, angry hours had I stared at those scars, willing, wishing, praying for them to disappear, all to no avail. And now it was like those same scars were draining away the surge of hope I had felt. How could I show myself to the priests looking like this? They’d laugh me back out of town!

“Go on”, he urged, more gently this time, “go and show yourselves to the priests”.

To turn and make that first step was about the hardest thing I’ve ever done. They talk about stepping out in faith but I’m not sure how much faith I had left by this point.  It was more a case of stepping out in desparation but I managed it and once I’d taken that first step the second seemed a little easier.

I heard my mates just behind me so I inched ahead. If we were doing this then I was going to be first. Soon we were all running full pelt towards the village where we knew there was a little synagogue.  As I ran I felt my muscles getting stronger, I felt my fists clench tighter, I felt more alive than I had done in years! I didn’t dare look at my hands again, I couldn’t cope with another setback so I just concentrated on running and let the wind do its work.

When we finally made it to the synagogue we banged on the door and as the priest opened it we tumbled inside.  I don’t know how he made sense of our ramblings but eventually he got the gist of it and, after inspecting each of us he pronounced us all clean.

Then he got some parchment and started handing us notes to confirm this. 1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8..9. Nine? But there were ten of us? Who wasn’t here? One of the samaritans. Maybe he’d gone the other way, into Samaria? No that wouldn’t make sense. Maybe he’d not been healed? No he was definitely with us. What had happened to him? I staggered to my feet and stuck my head out of the synagogue door.

In the distance I could see two figures. One was out on the road, walking slowly towards the village, the other was running away from the village towards him. As they met, the second figure threw himself on the floor at the feet of the first. In an instant I realised what was happening – he was saying thankyou! I had been so caught up in my own feelings I’d barely thought about thanking the man who had transformed my life!

I turned back to my friends in the synagogue and told them what I’d seen, said that we should go back and say thankyou as well but when I looked back towards the road he was gone. There was just the solitary figure of our companion making his own journey towards the synagogue.

My life was completely changed after that day. I went back to my home town, complete with my certificate proving that I was ok, that I was clean again.
I was welcomed back into my family, I got a new job, picked up the pieces of my life again. But I was never quite the same.

Whenever my mates started making fun of the Samaritans I’d make them stop, I’d tell them that we shouldn’t fear people just because they are different from us – we are more alike than you know.
Whenever I saw someone sleeping on the streets I’d stop and talk to them, look them in the eye.

And even from a distance I kept an ear out for news of Jesus.
I heard rumours that he’d been rounded up and killed by the Romans for associating with people like me. I heard even stranger rumours that he was seen alive again afterwards.

And although I never got to say thankyou to him in person I make sure that I never take what I have for granted. That I am thankful every day for the new life that God has given me.

A roof over my head, a meal in my belly, a hug from a friend – these have taken on a whole new meaning for me. They are no longer ordinary, everyday things.

They are blessings from God, who lifts up the downtrodden and comforts the brokenhearted.

Blessings from God who turns mourning into laughter and tears of sorrow into tears of joy.

Blessings from God, whose mercies are new every morning, even when the night has been long and dark.

And for that I will always be thankful.

“The Acts of Luke!”

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I wrote and performed this sketch at Church this morning.  The readings were Acts 16:9-15 and John 14:23-29.

~ ~ ~

Setup: dressed as hiker, big backpack, walking boots, shorts, fleece, hat, map, notebook (with script in!)
walk in from back of church…

Hi there, hi, hi, hiya, has anyone seen Paul? You know, Paul? Big celebrity preacher guy?
Used to be a baddie, now he’s a goodie? Road to Damascus and all that?
Paul? Anyone seen him? (ad lib to front)
This is Phillipi, right? I’m sure he’s here somewhere (hunt around choir stalls etc.)

Sorry, so rude of me, not introducing myself – I’m Luke.
I’m a doctor by trade but since they started throwing any of us who refused to work an 8 day week to the lions I decided it was time to pack it in.

I’m a writer now. I’m onto my second book already – you might have heard of the first one, I called it “the gospel of Luke”. Not bad for a first effort if I do say so myself, would have been a real hit too if those other guys hadn’t pinched my idea.

I mean I don’t mind them writing about Jesus too, everyone’s doing it these days – but did they have to be so blatant about pinching my title? The gospel of Matthew…the gospel of Mark…the gospel of John – I’ll bet we just get lumped together as “the gospels” and everyone will think we were working together.

Anyway I’m onto my second book now – thought I’d cash in on writing a sequel before those other guys do. The Acts of Luke, I’m planning on calling it – although my publisher reckons “the Acts of the Apostles” is a bit catchier. Nice alliteration and all that.
So I’ve been following Paul around for a while, doing a bit of investigative journalism, you know the sort – an in-depth exposee on the man behind the myth. Problem is he keeps disappearing off all over the place!

Seriously, one minute he’s in Troas, talking to the church there, then you nip out to buy a kebab and when you come back he’s apparently had a dream, hopped on a boat, and sailed off to Macedonia!

So I followed him to Samothrace – beautiful island that – trying to catch up but by the time I’d got there he’d sailed on to Neapolis.
These aren’t easy waters to sail on either, you might have seen pictures of people on the news fleeing for their lives, trying to cross over these very waters from Turkey into Greece in these shabby little boats. It’s a nightmare.

Anyway thankfully I’m not fleeing for my life but it’s still not much fun. So I had to wait to catch a ferry to Neapolis and when I got there I heard that he’d been and gone – headed straight off to Phillipi, not even waited for me. Phillipi’s sort of the capital city around here so hopefully he’ll stay there for a while and I can catch up.

It’s not the first time he’s done this sort of thing, dashing from one place to another with no warning. I asked him once why he does it and he said he’s just following the Holy Spirit.

I said, What’s that then? And he said that when Jesus left us he promised that the Father would send his ‘Holy Spirit’ to be with us always, to teach us and to guide us and to help us follow him.

He said that in the olden days God only sent his Spirit on a few people at particular times for particular reasons, but now he’s given her to everyone who follows him – young or old, boy or girl.
He also said that the Spirit would give us peace. Well I have to admit I’m not feeling all that peaceful right now, chasing after him halfway round the empire.

I would say something but he’s very fond of quoting Jesus when he said “The spirit blows where she pleases” – that’s not even from my gospel – I think he does it on purpose!

It’s quite exciting when you think about it though, God’s spirit is in each and every one of us! Helping us make good decisions, reminding us of the things that Jesus said.

Sometimes she speaks to people in dreams, other times by drawing our attention to something we might have missed – a verse in the Bible or a beautiful flower or a comment from a friend.

Sometimes she’s like a voice in the back of our head or an invisible rope pulling us in a particular direction even though we don’t know why we feel like we should go there.

Sometimes she helps us say the right thing when we’re lost for words or reminds us of a person we haven’t thought about for ages.

And we can choose to ignore her, drown out the voice of the Spirit with our own busyness, but she never really goes away, just lurks there like a satnav quietly saying “turn around where possible…turn around where possible…”

Well Paul never seems to have that trouble – he’s always off following the Spirit’s call, hopping from one country to the next setting up churches and moving on. I just hope he’s stuck around in Phillipi for a while.
What’s that? He’s gone to Lydia’s house? She’s leading the Church there is she? Excellent. Right well I’d better be on my way before the Holy Spirit has chance to give Paul any new directions!
See you later!

 

Feeding of the 5,000 – a sketch

‘Erman the ‘ermit is a recurring character of mine, he tries to escape from the crowds but somehow they always seem to find him!  He is usually seen wearing a camp blanket and silly hat…

~ ~ ~

 

Hello,
My name’s ‘erman. ‘erman the ‘ermit.
This is my ‘ill. I like my ‘ill, it’s nice and peaceful like. Quiet.
Can I tell you a story ’bout something that ‘appened ‘ere the other day?

I were sat ‘ere on my ‘ill, enjoyin’ the peace and quiet when this bloke comes up the side of me ‘ill and sits down over there.
Well I could see he were ‘ere for the peace and quiet too so I left ‘im alone like. Didn’t want to interrupt.

‘E were clearly upset, like ‘e’d ‘ad some bad news or sommat. You know that look, gazin’ off into the distance.
That said, it’s a reet nice view from me ‘ill so you never know, ‘e might have just been gazin’ off into the distance!

Anyway, where was I?
Oh yes, so we was sat on me ‘ill, just the two of us like, enjoyin’ the peace and quiet when this huge crowd of people comes stompin’ up, chattin’ and laughin’, makin’ a right rumpus.

Well I know I ‘ad that letter published in t’ Galilee Times which ruffled a few feathers like, so I thought they was comin’ to see me about it, this bein’ my ‘ill and all, but no!
They went right past me as if I wasn’t ‘ere, straight up to the other bloke.

Turns out ‘e was some teacher or sommat, and they all wanted to ‘ear what he had to say for ‘imself.
‘e were clearly a bit miffed as ‘e’d come up ‘ere for a bit of peace a quiet like, but he stood up anyway and started tellin’ ’em all these stories. Wonderful things, all about, what was it ‘e called it? Oh aye, the Kingdom of ‘eaven. ‘ow it were a place of peace and beauty.

Well I felt like shoutin’ out that my ‘ill were a place of peace and beauty before this lot came tramplin’ all over it!
But I didn’t. ‘e seemed like such a nice lad I didn’t want to spoil it for ‘im.

After e’d been goin’ for a while another crowd made it up me ‘ill. They’d clearly ‘ad a rough time of it as they was all covered in bandages and the like. But it turned out that they was all sick and poorly and they wanted this Jesus lad to ‘eal ’em.

And you know what? ‘e did! Every last one of ’em, better just like that! Then he carries on talkin’ about this Kingdom of ‘eaven, ‘ow it’s a place where nobody is sick, or dyin’ or even ‘ungry.
Well by this point I were getting’ a bit peckish so I shouts out, “’ave you got some food as well then?”
He stops, looks at me, then turns to ‘is mates and says “Give ’em something to eat then”
Well ‘is mates didn’t like that at all, there was so many people up ‘ere that they’d never be able to feed us all.

I tried countin’ everyone but the kids was all runnin’ about as kids do, and the women was all chasin’ the kids about as they do, fortunately the men was sat there oblivious so I could count ’em fairly simple like. I reckon there must ‘ave been five thousand of ’em at least! ‘ow the ‘eck were we all goin’ to eat up ‘ere on me ‘ill? I mean, I knows the bilberries are quite nice this time of year but that’s not exactly what you’d call a proper meal is it!

While I were countin’, they’d managed to rustle up a few bits of barley loaf and a couple of sardines. Nice idea but not quite enough fer a crowd like this after a long hot day.

Well this Jesus didn’t seem worried, ‘e took the bread, lifted it up over ‘is ‘ead, and prayed a lovely prayer. I can’t quite remember it now, I wish I’d written it down really but I don’t normally ‘ave much need for takin’ notes, what with bein’ an ‘ermit and all.

Anyways, after ‘e’d done this he gave it to ‘is mates and told ’em to start passin’ it round the crowd. I were about ‘alf way back so I weren’t reckonin’ on getting’ much but when they got to me I get a big chunk of bread and nearly ‘alf a fish! And I weren’t the only one!
It were amazin’ really. When we’d all ‘ad enough there were a dozen whackin’ great baskets all full of crumbs left over. I tell you what I didn’t envy whoever ‘ad to carry them back down me ‘ill.

But it got me thinkin’ like. What if this Kingdom of ‘eaven thing really is real? I mean I’d seen it with me own eyes, people bein’ ‘ealed, the ‘ungry bein’ fed.
It reminded me of old Prophet Isaiah.
I do like them prophets, miserable lot most of the time but they ‘ave their moments, much like us ‘ermits really.

Anyways there’s this bit where ‘e says
“Everyone who’s thirsty, come to the water,
And you that’s got no money, come buy and eat,
Come buy wine and milk without money and without price”

Aye, it seems to me that if that’s what the kingdom of ‘eaven is like then I want in.
So I goes up to Jesus afterwards, just as the crowds are goin’, and I asks ‘im what I should do about it, and ‘e says:
“Love God, and love your neighbour”
I said lovin’ God I can do, but love me neighbour? That’s a bit tricky bein’ an ‘ermit, we don’t really ‘ave neighbours!
But ‘e just chuckled, gave me a wink, and wandered off to join ‘is mates.

I sat there in the peace and quiet like, and I suddenly felt a bit lonely.
So I made meself a promise that next time someone came up me ‘ill I’d give ’em a bite to eat. And if they ‘urt themselves on the way down I’d look after them. And if they asked why I were doin’ all that I’d tell ’em about Jesus, about the kingdom of ‘eaven, and ‘ow it weren’t just some distant land but that it were about what we do ‘ere and now to make our world more like God wants it.

Anyways, I’d better get on, this sittin’ quietly doesn’t ‘appen by itself you know. And I think you lot ‘ave got an Hymn to sing, so you’d better stand up and get on with it.

Christmas sketch – ‘Identity Crisis’

This is a sketch I wrote for our Christmas morning service this year.  Each year the staff team and the Church wardens perform a sketch on Christmas day, it was filmed so I’ll try and upload a video at some point!

~~~~~~~~~

Identity Crisis

Setting: Mark dressed in white centre stage, everyone else dressed in black, Chairs along back of stage with costumes laid out. As each character is mentioned quickly dress Mark as the character.

Once upon a time there was a young girl called Mary

Blue headscarf

She was engaged to an old man named Joseph

Fake beard and walking sticktotter around

One day they had a surprise visitor

Big wings, tinsel halostand tall with arms stretched out

Who are you?” said Mary

Blue headscarfecho “Who are you”

I am an Angel sent from God to tell you are going to have a special baby, the son of God”

Keep angel costumeEcho ‘I am an angel…’

Mary said “but how could that happen?”

Blue headscarfecho ‘but how could that happen?’

The Angel replied “with God anything is possible!”

Big wings, tinsel haloecho ‘with God anything is possible!’

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census, it was a very long journey

Fake beard, walking stick, maptotter around looking puzzled

Mary was heavily pregnant but it was very busy in Bethlehem

Blue headscarf, pillow up jumperlook around, worried

They found a friendly looking innkeeper, “Who are you?” he said?

Apron, teatowel echo “who are you?”

We are Mary and Joseph” said Mary and Joseph, “We are expecting a special baby, the son of God”

Blue headscarf, fake beard, pillow, walking stickecho “we are Mary and Joseph…”

Fair enough”, said the innkeeper, “you’ll have to stay out the back, there’s no room in here”

Apron, teatowelecho “fair enough…”

When the baby was born they had to put him in a manger

Blue headscarf, Hand Mary the baby Put baby in the manger

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Meanwhile, in a nearby field, some shepherds were looking after their sheep

Teatowel, shepherds crook, toy sheeppush sheep around with crook

Suddenly an angel appeared

Big wings, tinsel halostand tall with arms stretched out

Who are you?” said the shepherds

Teatowel, shepherds crook echo “who are you?”

I am an angel, sent from God to tell you about a special baby, the son of God” replied the angel

Big wings, tinsel haloecho “I am an angel…”

Suddenly the sky was filled with hundreds of angels all singing God’s praises

Everyone look puzzled then all grab tinsel halos and put them on!

When the angels had gone the shepherds went in to Bethlehem to see the new baby, the son of God

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Meanwhile, a long way away, some wise men were stargazing

crown, binocularslook around with binoculars

They saw a new star in the sky, “who are you?” they said, puzzled

crown, binocularsecho “who are you?”

I am a new star” said the star, “I’ve come to lead you to a special baby, the son of God”

Starecho “I am a new star…”

How about that, a talking star!” said the wise men, “we’d better follow it and see this special baby, the son of God”

Crown, binocularsecho “how about that…”

So they set off on their way to Bethlehem (although they didn’t know that that was where they were going!)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Back in the stable, Mary had just got baby Jesus off to sleep when some visitors arrived. (Fortunately we all know from the song that baby Jesus never cried so it was OK!)

Blue headscarf rock baby Jesus

Who are you?” said Mary

Blue headscarf echo “who are you?”

We are shepherds” said the shepherds, “We have come to see the special baby, the son of God”

Teatowels, shepherds crookecho “we are shepherds…”

Just as the shepherds were getting comfy there was another knock at the door.

Who are you?” said Joseph

Fake beard, walking stickecho “Who are you?”

We are wise men” said the wise men, “We have come to see the special baby, the Son of God”

Crowns, binoculars echo “we are wise men…”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When all the visitors had gone, Mary thought about all that had happened. As she gazed in amazement at the tiny baby in her arms she wondered “who are you?”

Blue headscarf, babyGaze at the baby, say “who are you?”