A short story by David Schell
What you are about to read is entirely fictitious. Okay, not entirely. The parts that are historical are historical. The parts that aren’t obviously biblical are entirely made up.
I heard this legend from a friend, who heard it from a friend, who claims he heard it from a monk friend of his, who heard it from an archbishop, who found it in a really old scroll that claimed to have been written by St. Augustine in some monastery in Turkey. I’m inclined to believe that this is a true story. I’ve taken a little artistic license with it, but the details remain the same.
Everyone knows that the Romans built roads. But hardly anyone remembers the Romans who actually built those roads. This particular Roman’s name was Claudius. No one really remembered how Claudius got on the road-building gang. Claudius barely remembered it himself. But that is hardly important. The soldiers watching over the diggers and making them work were tired, but they kept going through the early night.
Claudius was exhausted. He stopped for a breath, and one of the soldiers shook his head and started walking toward him with a whip. Then the soldier stopped. Froze, actually, one foot still in the air. Before Claudius could even begin to realize what had happened, the night sky lit up like midday, and what looked like one of the gods stood in the air. Claudius was terrified, and his legs fell out from under him and he fell to his knees and lifted his hands in front of his face. “Mercy!” he cried. “We are but poor road builders!”
“Fear not!” the being commanded. “I am no god; I am a messenger from God Most High, the God of the Jews. He is the only God, the great maker of and ruler over heaven and earth, and today He has sent His only Son to earth; yes, this day in Bethlehem is born a Savior for the whole earth.”
Claudius and the other four road-builders remained on their knees, stunned and wide-eyed. The angel gave them a moment to take this news in. “Wh-… where can we find him?” Matimus stammered.
“You will find the Babe wrapped in cloths and laying in a manger.”
Claudius had seen paintings of the shining Roman gods in the Pantheon, outside of Rome, as a teenager. But tonight, the sky was flooded with a pure light as a whole army, bigger than the largest army of Rome that he had ever seen, and not even close to human, filled the sky. And they announced, “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth, peace and good will be to men.” And in an instant, the army was gone.
Claudius looked around. The guards were still frozen like statues. The other road-builders’ eyes were as wide as his.
A short while later, in a stable, a young couple with a newborn baby were bidding a farewell to a group of Jewish shepherds when a group of road-builders arrived outside. Claudius and the others had realized that they had no tribute whatever to give to the newborn Son of the only God, so they brought their spades and sheepishly came forward, passing the shepherds, and approached the manger.
“A gift for the Son of God,” Claudius said, extending the shovel to the muscular father. “Perhaps you can sell it for something more valuable.” But something struck him as strange about the shovel, now. He remembered it being made of wood and iron, as he looked, it was made of gold. His eyes grew wide, and as the other road-builders presented their gifts, behold! they were all made of gold!
The monk who told my friend’s friend this story said he couldn’t remember, but that he thought that when the road-builders came back, new spades awaited them in the ditch, and they were back working again when the guards unfroze. Claudius was pardoned about three months later. Between the birth and the pardoning, Claudius converted to Judaism. After he was granted his freedom, he lived his life in the city of Ephesus. He always wondered what had happened to the Son of God, until one day a Jewish man named Paul arrived proclaiming that a man named Jesus had been raised from the dead. Claudius wasn’t particularly interested until he learned that Jesus was called the Son of God and had been born in a manger.
The monk also said that the five golden spades had indeed been sold, and used to fund Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt. I’d be disinclined to believe the story and dismiss it as a mere fairy tale, but the monk said that the arch-bishop had a thousands-of-years-old artifact in his office that had convinced him that the story was true. It was a golden spade.