The snow continued to fall, covering the entire village in a thick, wintry blanket. The slight north wind snaked its way between the various dwellings and shops and deposited a greater part of its fruits on the entryway before the door of the village's small chapel.
Only the lights of the chapel could be seen in the stark, eerie whiteness of the night, for it was Christmas Eve, and all of the villagers had come together for the traditional mass to celebrate their Savior's birth. Though it was a small structure, everyone in the village and its surrounding valley had gathered inside for the warmth and friendship at this special time.
The chapel door moved open slightly at first, then burst wide, a spray of snow scattering. The figure of a man shown forth, massaging his shoulder from the effort. He peered east and west, looking into the forest on either side for signs of stragglers. Seeing none, he turned to inspect the village that straddled the sides of the cart path that made its way north, climbing steadily out of the valley. It appeared that everyone who was coming had arrived. He quickly kissed the exposed fingertips of his right hand and pressed them against the large head-plate of the entryway, turned, and stepped back over the threshold.
The man closed and latched the door behind him, carefully brushing the drifted snow off of his priestly robes. A few of his flock turned to silently watch him, but most of the people continued with closed eyes and bowed heads, kneeling toward the altar and cross that were the sole ornaments of the chapel. The priest could see the hungry look in their eyes and he nearly began to weep.
An aisle split the assemblage into two distinct groups: on the right sat a ragged group of children and teenagers, orphans who had been brought to this place to live; on the left, the few remaining villagers and dwellers of the valley. All were thin and drawn of face, many stricken with the ailments that accompanied malnourishment and the cold. The priest passed down the aisle, looking upon his downtrodden people with a love and caring that was insufficient for their needs. A tear crept out of his eye, but he quickly suppressed it.
The service was simple and short, as many things tended to be in the valley. There was none of the great processions like in Rome, or the gorgeously dressed people. There was only an overworked priest looking over his flock of nearly forty, who worked much harder than he. There was an invocation, the body and blood, and a short sermon, which the priest gave in a cracked and strained voice.
"My children, on this blessed night when the King of kings was born into this world, my heart is indeed heavy. On this night long ago, God was born in our midst. He lived a perfect life and left us with hope that God cared for us."
The priest sighed and shook his head. "I know it is difficult to worship at this time, my children." He looked about and saw that fact echoed in many eyes. "It has been many years since the Cup of Christ dripped its contents, bringing pilgrims to our valley to see the miracle and be healed. Many of our friends have left the valley, thinking that God has
forsaken this place and this people."
The priest rubbed his eyes and motioned toward the assembled orphans. "These children came here some years ago because we had food and clothes to spare. Those who traveled here, coming from the far corners of the Earth, would bring their riches with them, giving them up for things they could not buy: health, happiness, purpose. It was these gifts that provided for the orphans and also for many of us. Now, the Cup has been dry for five years, and the pilgrims have found other holy places that might give them peace."
The man rubbed the bridge of his nose, looking as if he might soon faint. "You must have faith that God will bless us. Food and money will be found, if we trust in Him. Miracles happen when there is a need and the people believe." The priest spoke quietly, almost to himself. "The need is certainly here, now we must produce the needed faith."
The priest signaled all to bow their heads, and he was obeyed. "Let us pray."
The prayer was long and shaky, the last effort of a nearly subdued people. But it also held within it the determination that the people would do what had to be done to have the things they needed. Every heart, made humble by adversity, cried out to the God that made them and that cry rang up out of the valley, surpassing the peaks that closed it in. Somewhere, high above, God, perhaps, was listening.
As the priest concluded his prayer, a cold blast ran through the chapel, causing all to shiver and look toward the door. A tall figure, wrapped tightly, pushed the door shut against the stiff wind. Turning, he exposed a reddened face with chapped lips, his eyes surveying the assembly. He remained quiet, not wanting to interrupt the service.
The man at the altar looked with concern upon the new arrival and beckoned him forward. The newcomer smiled and nodded his head, stepping forward as he began to remove his outer clothing. "I did not want to disturb you," he said quietly.
Some of the men came out of the pews and helped the man across to the fire, for he was still stiff and numb from the cold. Women ran to the chapel storeroom to fetch dried meat and fruit. He thanked them all kindly and took the cup of water that the priest offered. "You are most kind."
As the man warmed himself, the priest walked to the door and made another inspection of the growing fury outside. He quickly relatched the door and, turning to his congregation, made an announcement. "The storm has worsened outside and I think it is unwise for any of you to return to your homes. I invite all of you to stay here with us that we may all celebrate together." He walked back toward the fire, eyeing the newcomer strangely. "Sir, I fear your beast has left you. Shall we send some boys to search for it?"
The man's face was now able to smile broadly. "Thank you, but there is no need. I brought no beast with me."
The priest was puzzled by this, but he kept himself quiet and listened to the questions thrown at the newcomer.
The talk revealed that this man had come from over the mountains, and was just passing through. This was odd in that the small cart track that came into the village stopped there. People did not "pass through," they came to the village, which was the only destination on the track, and promptly left again by the way they had come. The queries of the people reflected this and the man simply said that he had come to the village for the night and would continue on his way when the storm had finished.
"Sir," spoke the priest at last, "This village is three miles from the main road, and over a torturous pass. I do not see why you have come here."
The man's eyes rose and he smiled again. "I desired to come and see these people. I have heard much about them. Is that an evil?"
"No." The priest was full of questions, but he went silent.
Everyone was bedded down within an hour, as close to the embers of the fire as possible. The priest had settled himself down on one of the pews when he was startled by the sudden presence of the stranger.
"I did not mean to startle you." He spoke very low, so that he would not disturb the others. "Something a woman said to me has disturbed me and I wish to ask you about it."
The priest shrugged and sat back up. "What would you like to know?"
The man sat down beside him. "She said that things had become difficult in this valley. She spoke of passing back over the mountains to make a new home. She was very distressed as if it would be very painful to leave." He sighed. "Perhaps you can explain this to me."
"If you will bring your coat and come with me, I will explain."
They walked quietly to the door and stepped outside.
"There," he spoke quietly, "is the thing that pushes that woman away and yet makes that leaving difficult." The priest pointed to the wooden head-plate of the doorway.
The stranger looked at it without understanding. "Feel it," urged the priest.
He touched the wood and ran his fingers along its length. "Was this plate once carved?"
"Yes," the priest said softly. "It once bore a carving of the Last Supper of our Lord. Unfortunately, time has worn the image nearly away."
"What about this faded door-plate would convince that woman to leave this village?"
The priest hugged himself against the bitter cold that now replaced the wind. "Fifteen years ago, I am told, this place was the site of a miracle. The Cup that Christ held in the carving was seen to drip from its rim a drop of yellowed water. The one who discovered it touched the drop and put it to his lips to taste it, and where he was once nearly deaf of ear, he could hear as any other." The priest stepped down from the door and looked into the night. "Word got to Rome of the holy water that dripped from the Cup and soon many came to see the drop and seek healing by.it."
The stranger touched the dim outline of the Cup and thought quietly to himself.
"That was the great blessing of this valley. People came in a steady stream willing to present money and gold and jewels to be healed. Those with a skill for healing came and added their talents to those virtues of the water. A few of those who were healed stayed and took up their homes here to help support the work that was done. A group of orphans were brought here, for the rewards left by the pilgrims were sufficient to care for their needs as well as those of the villagers."
The priest came back to stand beside the stranger and gaze at the head-plate. "Then the dripping ceased. I had been here only a short time, but I saw those of little faith leave the valley, eager to chase the next talisman that might bring them personal fortune. As time passed, even the strong healers in the Lord had gone, their talents idle from the lack of needy pilgrims."
He turned to the stranger, looking into his gentle, moist eyes. "These," he indicated the people within, "are all that is left of the faithful, who came here because they felt a calling from God, and wished to stay with the work of healing, against all reason."
The stranger could only muster two short words: "I see."
As daylight crept into the sky, the fire was rekindled and a sparse meal was being prepared by the women. Most of the men had been back to their homes to check on beasts and other necessities, bringing back with them any spare food they could contribute to the village breakfast. The priest was particularly weary and his congregation let him sleep in peace.
When he did awake, the priest sought, among the clusters of people who were chatting and eating, for the stranger of the night before. None seemed to know where he was nor recall seeing him at all since waking. He searched all around the exterior of the chapel, looked among the many
footprints in the snow, but he could find no trace of the stranger anywhere. The priest shrugged, hoping that the warm night in the village was sufficient for his needs and that his journey was helped along in some way.
In the midst of the breakfast, one of the villagers burst in through the door, wide-eyed. "Father," he said loudly. "Come and see."
The priest left his meal and went outside, a good majority of the people following curiously. The man motioned toward the doorway and a gasp went up. "The Last Supper," a woman breathed.
There, were it had been for countless years, was the restored carving of The Last Supper, copied in every detail from the original. Everyone gazed in wonder at the wood, as if it were a mere vision and would soon pass away.
The man who had discovered it spoke again. "Father, I found this in a crack beside the door." He unrolled a small scroll with writing on it and gave it to the priest, who was one of the few in the village who could read.
The priest began reading it silently to himself, but the cries of his flock interrupted him, begging him to read it aloud.
He began strongly. "'My dear friends -- I regret that I cannot spend the day with you, but as you can see, I was kept busy into the deep night. Carving is a close cousin to my own profession, so I took it upon myself to give you a gift on this special day. I hope you like it.'"
"'Continue in your faith, my friends. God does not keep willing hands idle. As this valley has brought healing, so shall it be healed. I hope to see you again. Thank you for your kindness.'" The priest's voice was soft then, wondering.
The villagers crowded around to see the note as their priest's mind strove to catch a fleeting thought: it was a scripture. "For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat:" the priest mumbled, half to himself, "I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:..."
Everything was silent in that moment, as if time itself had stopped. Then, so faintly, almost not to be heard, was the sound of a tiny something striking the step before the door. Every head turned and looked down at the trampled whiteness of the snow, seeing in the midst a spot of yellow. The priest, in awe, looked up at the head-plate.
There, on the rim of the cup that Christ drank from for the last time among his friends, was another drop of yellowed water preparing to fall.