A long time ago, far away in the little town of Bethlehem, there lived a couple named Jethro and Judith who owned a small inn. They enjoyed having many guests come and go, and they provided beautiful meals, but there was just one problem. That problem came in the shape of small, furry creatures who hide in little holes and eat any food – even crumbs – that they can find. Yes, you’ve got it: Jethro and Judith had a mouse problem. Often the guests would complain. There would be a scream from one of the bedrooms and someone would come running to Jethro shouting, ‘A mouse! A mouse! There’s a mouse in my room! You can’t have mice in your inn! You must get rid of them!’, and as the complaints grew Judith and Jethro wondered what they should they do. ‘Get traps and put them down everywhere!’ said some guests. But Jethro and Judith were great animal lovers, and vegetarians, and they didn’t want to harm the mice. And anyway, they had tried traps in the past, which they baited with cheese, but the mice just got good at removing the cheese without springing the traps. Then someone suggested that they get fancy electronic devices that emit a high-pitched sound that scares the mice away – but Jethro pointed out that they had not been invented yet, so that was no good. So Judith and Jethro got some different, humane traps in which you place food, and the mice wander in to get the food but then can’t turn around and get out, and you then take the mice outside and set them free and you hope that they don’t come back. Well, they worked a treat. They caught lots of mice and Judith took them outside and released them into the fields around Bethlehem, where sheep used to graze, watched over by shepherds. Wonderful! There was only one problem – after hanging out with the sheep for a while and stealing some of the shepherds’ food, the mice came straight back! They knew where Jethro and Judith lived, and they liked living in the walls and the floors of their inn and so after being released into the fields they soon returned. So Judith and Jethro’s mouse problem was not solved! What on earth would they do next? Well, perhaps you can guess what came next. What do you do when you have a mouse problem? What is the sure way of getting rid of them? Yes, that is right. You get a cat. So that is what Jethro and Judith did: they bought a cat. And it was a big, marmalade coloured, green-eyed cat – a magnificent cat, so they called it Magnifi-cat. First, however, they got rid of all their mice using their humane devices, and then they left Magnifi-cat to prowl the inn, making sure that none of the mice came back. And Magnifi-cat sat by the fire in the inn and he curled up in the kitchen. And did that do the trick? Well, let’s hear what happened next.
So, Jethro and Judith had Magnifi-cat to keep away the mice. Let me tell you, however, about one little mouse called Sheila. She loved the warmth and cosiness of the inn and enjoyed feeding on the crumbs and the scraps of food that were left lying on the floor. But she too was soon trapped in one of the humane mouse traps and taken out into the fields. And there she hopped around with some of the sheep and she also made friends with two beautiful sheepdogs that used to help the shepherds in the fields: Finn and Pedro. And sometimes they played together, and Sheila enjoyed listening to the shepherds as they sat round the fire at night and she would eat up their crumbs after them. But eventually Sheila missed the warmth and comfort of the inn and the scraps and back she went and found her way through the little crack in the wall that she had squeezed through before to get in. Once inside however, Sheila stopped and stood still. Her little nose twitched, because she could smell something that seemed to spell out a warning. Then she saw it: the big Magifi-cat looking over in her direction. She realised at once that the cat had seen her and then he was padding towards her, his green eyes glinting. As fast as she could Sheila ran back through the crack in the wall and out into the street and there she sat shaking with fear, her little heart beating fast. Where could she go? Where would she be safe from the cat? Then she had an idea. She knew that there was a stable round the back of the inn where there was a cow and a donkey and some chickens and she thought to herself, ‘I’ll be safe there! I’m sure the cat won’t go in there!’ And so Sheila raced round to the stable and squeezed in under the door. And there she saw a manger full of hay for the cow and she made herself a little nest over in a corner near to it, and there she lay, safe and content at last. And she watched as occasionally the cow would come over and munch from the manger.
That night however, something very strange happened, something that Sheila would never forget.
So, there lay little Sheila the mouse in her nest, in the stable, just near the manger. But then, that night, it happened. It was late and very dark in the stable when Sheila was awakened by the sound of the latch on the stable door lifting. And suddenly there was the light of a lantern and two people, a young woman and a man, came in. And they seemed so tired and weary and they arranged some straw on the floor and they lay down and Sheila heard them talking softly until soon there was silence, and not a sound except for the steady breathing of the animals. Suddenly, however, Sheila was awakened to another sound. The woman seemed to be in great pain and the man was speaking comforting words to her, and then she was groaning and crying out and the cow and the donkey awoke and the hen clucked and there were more cries – and then, a different sound: the sound of a little baby crying. Then there was silence, followed by the gurgling of the baby, and then Sheila heard the woman singing softly, and all was peaceful. And by the light of the lantern and from her place in her nest Sheila could see the woman lying on the floor, holding the baby to her breast. Then she saw her stand up, holding the baby bundled up in cloths, and she placed the baby carefully and gently in the manger. Then Sheila went back to sleep.
So Sheila the mouse slept peacefully in the stable. She didn’t know how long it was after that, but it must have been a couple of hours, when suddenly she was awakened again. It was still dark in the stable except for the lantern, but she heard the sound of the door latch again and the door was opened and there were more lights and voices which Sheila recognised. It was the shepherds, or some of them, and she was so pleased to see them! And then she saw the outline of Finn the sheepdog and he was prowling around in the stable and sniffing, and he looked over in Sheila’s direction and Sheila was sure he saw her. And as she watched the shepherds walked over to the manger and stood around it, and Finn lay down at their feet. So Sheila hopped out of her nest and went over and sat beside Finn and looked up at the manger, and she heard the shepherds talking with the man and the woman, and she heard laughter and more singing.
Suddenly, however, Sheila froze with fear. Looking over at the door she saw, standing and peering into the stable, the unmistakeable shape of Magnifi-cat. He stood there, his tail swaying from side to side, and suddenly he caught sight of Sheila. Arching his back, he pounced into the stable and galloped over towards Sheila, screeching. Sheila, terrified, ran as fast as she could to the other side of the stable. At just that moment, however, Finn the sheepdog, who had been eyeing the manger from his place on the floor, saw Magnifi-cat. And he leapt up with a yelp and ran at the cat, barking furiously. And so there followed absolute chaos, with the cat chasing Sheila round the stable, shrieking and screeching, and Finn the dog chasing the cat, barking and howling, and Sheila running for dear life. Where was she to go? In an instant it came to her. She raced up onto a hay bale and from there leapt onto a low wall and she ran along that and jumped down – into the manger. And there Sheila lay, trembling, her heart pounding, pressed up against the little baby. Then, however, the baby let out a little cry, and that stopped Finn and Magnifi-cat in their tracks. They froze still and then, slowly, they padded over to the manger and looked into it. The cow, and the donkey, and the chickens came over to the manger too, and there they all stood with the shepherds and the man and the woman, gathered together in a huddle, looking down at the mouse and the baby. Magnifi-cat purred softly, and Finn the dog gave a little whine, and the man stroked them both. And as the woman watched she heard in her mind an ancient Scripture she had learnt as a child:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them…
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain:
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Note: The story about Sheila, the Magnifi-cat, and the night in the stable was written by Rev. Dr. Lance Stone. He told it during the Christmas Day service.