According to an ancient and familiar legend, whose precise origins I have been unable to ascertain, a week before Christmas, the Archangel Michael asked his angels to visit Earth; he wanted to find out if everything was ready for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. He sent the angels in pairs, an older angel with a younger one, in order to get the broadest view possible of what was going on in the Christian world.
One of these pairs of angels was sent to Brazil, where they arrived late at night. Since they had nowhere to sleep, they sought shelter in one of the large mansions that can be found in certain areas of Rio de Janeiro.
The owner of the house, a nobleman on the brink of bankruptcy (a fairly common occurrence amongst the people of that city), was a fervent Catholic and he recognised the celestial envoys at once by their golden haloes. However, he was very busy getting ready for a big Christmas party and, having almost finished the decorations, he was reluctant to disrupt them in any way; and so he asked his visitors if they wouldn’t mind sleeping in the basement.
According to all the Christmas cards, it is always snowing at that time of year, but in Brazil, Christmas falls during the height of summer; it was, therefore, unbearably hot in the basement to which the two angels had been banished, and the humidity made the air almost unbreathable. They lay down on the hard floor, but just as they were beginning their prayers, the older angel noticed a crack in the wall. He got up, applied his divine powers to mending the crack, then resumed his nightly prayers. It was so hot in the basement that it was like spending the night in Hell.
Despite their sleepless night, they still had to carry out the mission they had been given. The following day, they travelled the length and breadth of the great city with its 12 million inhabitants, its beaches and its mountains, its many contrasts. They filled in the requisite reports, and when night fell once more, they made for the interior; however, still confused by the time difference, they again found themselves with nowhere to sleep.
They called at a modest house, and a couple came to the door. Unfamiliar with the depictions in medieval engravings of these messengers from God, the couple failed to recognise the pilgrims, but if the two men needed shelter, their house was at their disposal. They made them some supper, introduced them to their new baby and gave up their own bedroom to them, apologising for their poverty and for the terrible heat and for the fact that they could not afford an air-conditioning unit.
When the angels woke the next day, they found the couple in floods of tears. Their only asset, a cow that provided them with milk and cheese and sustenance for the family, had been found dead in the field. They said goodbye to the pilgrims, embarrassed because, since they had no cow to milk, they could not even offer their guests any breakfast.
When the angels were walking back down the dirt track, the younger angel gave vent to his anger:
‘I simply cannot understand your behaviour! The first man had everything he could possibly want and yet you helped him, but when it came to that poor couple who welcomed us so warmly, you did absolutely nothing to relieve their suffering. ‘
‘Things are not always what they seem,’ said the older angel. ‘When we were in that awful basement, I noticed that there was a stash of gold hidden in the wall, left there by a previous owner. The crack exposed some of that gold, and so I decided to cover it up again, because the owner of the house had shown himself incapable of helping others in need. Yesterday, when we were sleeping in that kindly couple’s bed, I noticed that a third guest had arrived: the angel of death. He had been sent to carry off their child. Now, I’ve known the angel of death for years and I managed to persuade him to take the life of the cow instead. Just remember what day we are about to commemorate: the only people who welcomed Mary were the shepherds, and because of that, they were the first to see the Saviour of the World.
This story is written by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho for theInternational Network of Street Papers and Translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa.