"I believe you, Anton," said the ranger, "but it is time that we part." He stood and spoke, "Kneel before me, my beloved son, so I may give you a father's blessing." Anton knelt. The forest ranger raised his eyes to heaven. There was something noble and celebratory in his stance and manner. He blessed the young man and said, "May God accompany you on your path, keep you from sin, and lead you back into our arms safe and pure." The mother and children stood around them with folded hands and tears in their eyes. They replied piously, "Amen!" The ranger raised Anton, put his arms around him and said, "Now, off you go and may God be with you. Keep Him in sight and avoid not just evil but the opportunity to commit evil. And above all else avoid the people who would scorn the faith of our ancestors and make fun of our pious customs. Be well, and go with God."
The entire family accompanied the deeply touched young man on the broad path to the end of the forest. Finally they said their farewells. Anton went on but they stayed behind. He looked behind himself often and waved to them with his hat. The ranger and Christian waved back with their hats, the ranger's wife and two daughters waved their white handkerchiefs until Anton finally disappeared behind a forested hill with his staff in his hand and his valise on his back.
A Christmas Gift
The third Christmas season had arrived since Anton's departure. The ranger came home early from the forest with his son Christian. The evening sky glowed red through the window of the parlor. The round glass panes began to frost over and shimmer in the evening glow like jewels. The ranger sat in his armchair next to the big stove. He laid more wood on the fire. The stove was placed in such a way that it could be opened from the parlor. The flames shot high and lent a pulsing brightness to the parlor which reflected on the windows and magnified the light on the frozen window panes.
The ranger's wife entered the parlor. "Do you have a letter from Anton?" the ranger asked. "No," she replied with a sad expression. "That's strange," said the ranger as he shook his head. "On Christmas Eve there's always been a letter from him. He usually writes regularly and his letter always bring me the warmest Christmas joy. What's with the boy that he doesn't write?"
The ranger had scarcely spoken these words when a messenger with powdered white hair entered the parlor. He had a letter in one hand and a new pine crate on his back which was thin but so wide and tall the man had to bend to get into the room. The messenger gave the ranger the letter and unloaded the crate. "The letter is from Mr. Riedinger," the ranger said. He opened and anxiously read it by the light of the fire coming from the stove.
"Look at this," he exclaimed with joy, "Anton sent us a painting from Rome as a Christmas present. He sent it to Riedinger and asked him to make sure we got it for Christmas Eve. The painting is a masterwork, Mr. Riedinger writes. Anton is a wonderful boy. I would love to hug him right now." When the messenger left the ranger said, "Come sit around me. Along with Riedinger's letter there's a letter from Anton which I will read to you." Luise brought a lit candle in a brass candlestick. All sat curiously in a circle as the ranger read.
"Beloved parents and siblings! Here is a Christmas present, a painting which I created with great care. It represents the newborn Savior in the manger. Many artists assure me the picture is a good one. I hope that it brings you as much joy as the child Jesus in the manger gave me on the first time I entered your home. That will surely be a great joy. I wish I could come to you myself and present the picture. The countryside there is so beautiful! Most of all I long to return to you and sit by the fire where I have spent the happiest days of my life.
"I have your generousity to thank for my life under the warm Italian sky and when I finally deserve the title, for becoming an artist. As flawed as they were, each brave attempt to represent the child Jesus' manger scene helped awaken my talent. It is always before my eyes and although I have seen many fine artworks, none will ever replace it. The happy years of childhood still stand above it all! But then we look around ourselves as though awakened by the glow of the morning sun. What a shame that the time passes so quickly.
"Since you are reading my letter and looking at my painting I feel as though I am with you. I remember with tenderness when I came to your country home half frozen, how mother revived me with a warm meal, how you took me in to be your child, how Christian, Katharine and Luise joyfully shared their Christmas present with me. Oh, dear father! I kiss yours and my stepmother's worthy hands in gratitude. I embrace all my siblings. I rejoice in the thought of seeing you all again in a few short years not just in spirit and from a distance but face to face. With my whole heart I am your grateful, loving son, Anton. Rome, November 15, 1765."
"What a lovely letter," the ranger said as he wiped his eyes. "Whatever we gave the child was far too little. I never had really high expectations of him but he has surpassed every one. I never would have thought I would gain so much joy from him. Now," he said with a smile, "I think dinner is ready. Afterwards we'll look at the painting." "No," all responded as one. "This is more important than food!" "I'll quickly get a candle so we can see the painting better," Luise added. Christian opened the crate and all exclaimed as the beautiful picture came into view. "Oh, how beautiful! What splendid figures! What indescribable colors!"
The ranger propped up the painting on an endtable with bright candles on either side. All eyes were on the beautiful picture. The ranger's wife folded her hands and said, "Truely, there is nothing lovelier. For me it's like I'm right next to Jesus' crib! How kindly and sweetly the holy child looks at us and how tenderly His mother looks down at Him as He lays in her arms.
"Look at how Joseph stands reverently nearby with folded hands and eyes to heaven as the shepherds kneel and utter their prayers. And the angel above, oh, how exquisite! Anyone who does not rejoice in the birth of the Savior and does not praise God with the angels truely must have hearts of stone."
The ranger looked at the painting for a long time without saying a word. Then he spoke, "You're right! Seeing the holy story so beautifully painted and in a frame before our eyes, it makes a wonderful impression on the heart. Let me see if I can describe everything I see in it and how it makes me feel." He pushed his chair a little ways back and sat a short distance away from the picture in order to get a better perspective.
Then he said, 'Let us, beloved children, direct our eyes to the holy child in the manger but first look at Him as a human child. Weak and helpless, wrapped in a humble blanket, laying on hay and straw. But His loving mother greets Him with a kind smile and tenderly cares for Him. His concerned foster father stands nearby, ready to protect mother and child and provide for them with his labor. A devoted father, a loving mother, and a child. This it true love and one thinks on it with gratitude for this must be the most beautiful scene on earth as the angels rejoice from above. This beloved trinity, — father, mother and child — God has joined together."
"My dear children! Think of this as you look at the divine child in his crib. I too was once a defenseless child lying in a crib. I would have died if my parents had not lovingly cared for me. However this small and strange visitor was taken in with joy and gladness and all preparations were made for his arrival. My mother covered me in my first clothes and blanket which she had spun, bleached and sewed for me herself. She attentively watched me in my cradle as I slept. She spent many sleepless nights out of love for me! The true father shared her concern and worked for us both. So think, and thank God, that he sent you good parents. And do not be ungrateful to your parents. Sons or daughters who forget how their mothers stood by them, how their fathers worked to provide then with food, clothing and schooling are without human feelings. Wouldn't they then be like animals, perhaps the oxen or donkeys which the painter so naturally portrayed in the picture? Mindless creatures with their heads hanging to the ground! They experience no joy. They are incapable of smiling. They only think of eating, showing no gratitude and knowing nothing about godly things. Never be like them, dear children! Consider the holy angels who circle above and acknowledge their Creator. They rejoice and sing His praise. The human being is the only creature on earth who can also do this because he has an immortal soul. He arrives poor and helpless into the world. He must go through much before he stands in full adulthood. In many ways he is like an angel only covered with flesh and blood. When the covering falls away, the angel is perfected — but only if he fulfills his role as a human on this earth and has lived in accordance with the will of his Creator.
"Even the setting in which we find the child and his parents, the lowly crib and the dusty stall, have meaning. A person does not need a palace in order to fulfill his role on this earth. He can happily live in the most miserable straw hut yet die a blessed death.
"In this manger we see only poverty and want. But, to be truely happy, worthy of respect and filled with human nobility one does not need satin and silk, gold and silver. God makes no distinction between people when it comes to the most important things. A humble stall houses here the holiest, most blessed and honorable man ever to live on earth."
"And now, my children, what I have just said should indeed bring us great joy and comfort, but the divine child's descent from God and his high calling are the most important things. Through Him we see God's love for mankind. In Him we see God in human form. He was born into great poverty, lay as a child in a manger, owned little in this world, even a place to rest at night, and died like a criminal on a cross. Yet without worldly goods or riches or weapons He changed the face of the earth with His divine wisdom, love and omnipotence. He enlightened the human race, ennobled it, defeated death and verified His godly nature. This is what the beautiful picture should remind us of. So this evening and tomorrow, my children, let us embrace our Savior anew and rejoice in songs of praise with the angels."
As the ranger finished speaking, his wife gently added, "Yes indeed, children, let's do that! The beautiful picture Anton sent us is the loveliest Christmas gift he could have made for us. The attention you paid to your father's pious remarks is the greatest way of celebrating the Christmas Eve feast. We should gratefully accept the blessings God has sent us through the newborn savior. This is the birthday of the Savior and the birthday of our salvation."
The Ranger's Difficulties
Since Anton's departure the ranger and his family lived in peace and harmony for many years. His children grew, his son to hearty young manhood, his daughters to blossoming young womanhood. All were well brought up and of faultless character. But as the ranger began to develop the difficulties of advancing age he wanted to turn the duties of his office over to his son. Each year in autumn the prince of the land visited the royal hunting lodge at the edge of the forest. He was a popular ruler. All his subjects loved him and spoke with him in friendly manner. This year as the prince returned to the lodge and found the hunting especially good, he approached the ranger, patted him on the shoulder and asked, "How are things with you, my dear ranger?"
"Your Highness," the ranger said, "these old shoulders will not longer stand up to the burdens of the day. I would like to turn the job over to younger shoulders." "Well," spoke the prince, "that's your son over there. Christian is his name? He's a good hunter and I have no doubt a good forester. The woods, as I noticed on the hunt,
"are in excellent condition. Rely on it. No one else will get the job. Meanwhile he may assist you. I would prefer that you maintain the supervision and title of ranger for now. It is to your and my advantage."
The ranger gave his thanks to the prince for his gracious assurance then said, "There is yet another situation. My son could make a good marriage with the daughter of a friend from my early days, the long ago deceased Ranger Busch. The girl recently lost her mother and doesn't know where to turn. She is poor but very pious, hard-working, of flawless character, kind and modest." "Indeed," said the prince. "it's praiseworthy that a brave man makes his choice based on innocence and virtue rather than money and property. With pleasure I will grant him permission to marry and secure him a future post as forest ranger. I will issue the decree and have it put in writing."
With a gesture from his father the ranger's son came over and thanked the prince. The marriage was arranged. With a young and kind wife came new blessings upon the house. Peace and harmony resided under the ranger's roof. The daughter of the house lived as a sister with the young ranger's wife. Everyone was happy.
However soon after the happy house was beset with difficulties. It concerned a previous event which the old ranger had nearly forgotten. Young Lord von Schilf, who used to go on the hunt with the ranger, had taken it upon himself to go out hunting alone and without permission into the forest and shoot down everything his eyes came upon. The ranger stopped him and said, "Indiscriminant shooting is strictly forbidden. If you desire to go hunting, my dear young lord, you must first come to me. I will gladly take you with me and show you the best place to shoot to your heart's content. But I cannot allow you to go off on your own and do whatever you want in the forest entrusted to me."
Now, like before, the young lord went off on the hunt alone. The ranger met him in the forest, took away his weapon and said. "God knows I don't want to do this but I must. The order is clear. I can't do anything else. If I see you again I will have to issue a warrant and that won't be good for you." The brave ranger went to the elder Lord von Schilf and told him that the your lord was barred from hunting. The old lord usually let his son do as he pleased but he feared incurring the prince's displeasure. He threatened to disinherit his son if he went out hunting again unless the ranger went with him, but the young lord was in the habit of disobeying his father. Soon after the ranger heard a shot, hurried into the woods and found the young lord standing over a felled deer. The ranger issued a warrant. The old lord immediately went to the prince and begged for mercy. The prince said, "According to the law the young lord should be put in prison. I will show him mercy this time but if he trespasses again I'll send him there. And understand this. I cannot appoint anyone to a position who has been in prison." With that the matter was settled but the young lord harbored deep hatred for the ranger and vowed, no matter how many years it took, to have his revenge. — Soon after the prince died. His successor was still underage and traveling abroad. A trustee was appointed and the land went through many changes. Young Lord von Schilf was very rich and had good connections.
Go to pages 54-58
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks