“Let’s go to Bethlehem,” we students agreed with one another. We were enrolled in a summer course in Jerusalem, through a program called Bat Kol which the Sisters of Sion generously invited me to attend. The final free Saturday was approaching. We wanted to make the trip before returning home.
It’s a journey so short, geographically, that most of us would go farther on a Saturday for groceries without thinking. Yet for us it was a long journey, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.
The day involved walking, buses, a concrete wall and a military checkpoint, shopping, eating and drinking, politics, prayer, the Bible, encountering Palestinians, encountering Israelis, encountering each other. By land, 10 kilometres to the town; by time, two millennia to the birth of Christ; by understanding, immeasurable distance into the current social and political situation, and to the spiritual and religious questions, including whether Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem at all.
“Let’s go to Bethlehem.” According to Luke’s Gospel, the shepherds on the hillside made this decision after a vision of angels in the midst of a work shift. The angels made them an offer, and left them with a dilemma. Shall we stay where we are, with all its comforts and discomforts, or shall we follow the voice of glory? Are we crazy to go, or crazy to ignore it?
It’s an offer made to us and leaving us with a decision, too. Shall we, this Advent, accept the invitation to “go and see the strange thing which the Lord has made known to us”? Shall we take the risk that peace and joy are available here on this darkling plain of our lives, our earth? It’s the life-changing risk of faith.
That Saturday, while visiting the Bethlehem L’Arche community with a friend who lives there, I purchased a gold-trimmed icon of the Nativity, which the community members made. Meditating with it, I reflect on the inner conflict of the people depicted in the story, including the shepherds. But Joseph is my favourite. He sits with his back turned to the action, wrestling with doubt. You can almost hear the competing voices crowding his head: the logical one of “she has broken the Law, let her be punished”; the emotional one of “she betrayed you”; the familiar “what will people think?”; the sensible loving voice of “divorce her quietly to spare her publicity.” And that wild free voice which he ultimately took as his guide: “marry her anyway — raise the child as your own — this is of God.”
What made him choose that strange voice? What price did he pay for following it, and what glory was wrought by it?
We may choose whether to follow the inner heavenly, disturbing, breathtaking voice. That’s the real “freedom of choice” we all have, at all times. It may come in the smallest of ways. Shall we go to Bethlehem, or shall we see if we can get to the mall early enough to find a parking space? Shall we look for the sign of the homeless swaddled infant lying in the manger, or shall we frazzle ourselves booking all the right “holiday parties” and fighting over who will host Christmas dinner? Shall we be not afraid, and risk being really present to ourselves and each other — or escape our loneliness through our addictions, entertainments and material goods?
In going to Bethlehem, the shepherds may have appeared to be abandoning their work and running away. Luke tells us differently: they were listening to angels, who showed them the glory that fills the universe and dared them to go in search of a sign. The sign was itself so simple and so lowly that perhaps only poor labourers could recognize it. A wrapped-up baby laid, not in a palace or even a crib, but in a feed-box for animals.
We have the gift of prayer to attune our ears to the voice of love, to energize us to get up and follow it, to strengthen our vision to see the glory in the manger. We have each other and our Advent traditions to help us go together where perhaps none of us could go alone.
My Bethlehem friend gave me another clue. She knows the secret. As she brought me back to meet my companions, she pointed out the children’s hospital, the only one in Palestine, which cares for children in need regardless of origin. She knows it well because she goes there weekly to hold disabled babies whose mothers cannot hold them. Near the hospital, painted on the security wall, is an icon of the Mother of God holding her child. Holding salvation in her arms.
Shall we go to Bethlehem, after all? Shall we leave our familiar hillsides and venture into the night seeking and carrying peace and glory? Who will go with us? Some we may know already, and some may meet us along the way in surprising places and strange dress.
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org