The Stillness of Bethlehem
The couple did not look distinctively different than any other. They had entered the refugee camp with the travel dust still grimed into the creases of their skin and settling on their loose clothing. The town of Bethlehem sighed as it absorbed yet more occupants on its spreading outskirts. There was really no place for them to go. They were just two more among thousands who had fled from Israel to join the Palestinian community on the West Bank. Tourist season was in full swing and the hotels were full.
Still, they were hopeful. They had walked the ten kilometers from Jerusalem, carrying the most valuable of their meager possessions. A young boy had met with them just outside the city limits to guide them through the ragged hills, and away from peering eyes and uncomfortable questions. He was searching now, as they were searching, for the one who had promised to give them shelter.
He could work. His determined hands twisted as they tugged at his knapsack carrying the tools of his trade; a retractable tape measurer, a square, a chisel, a utility blade, screwdrivers and a level. At his waist, hung in a leather clip, dangled his hammer. He went door to door, knocking, confident at first. The confidence waned a little more with each shaking head and shrugged shoulders.
“I thought you had a contact here,” remarked the woman. It wasn’t criticism. It was weariness. Her hands spread over her swollen belly. She wasn’t quite due, but the stress that had built from their days of hiding and weeks of fear had taken its toll. The baby had already dropped, and there was a small, flat gap between her breasts and the protruding roll that sagged noticeably at her hips.
“We’ll find him,” promised her husband.
The hour was growing late. The sun was settling in a bright orange ball on the horizon, painting the path they had come by with thickening shadows. A few stragglers walked the pathway yet, the figures scarcely discernible from the blackening trees and tumbling eruptions of rocky hillside. They waited in the spot the boy had left them, in a small grassy lot breathing between the quickly erected settlement buildings.
The woman settled on the grass, her mind wandering, as minds often do after feeling the open wind and listening to the rumble of centuries stirring under the hard, white ground, to a journey taken centuries ago by a couple as humble as themselves, as bewildered by the political unrest rippling in undercurrents like a steadily streaming poison, as filled with wonder that they should be standing on a pivotal point in history.
She had traveled to Bethlehem, aware with each rocking movement of the donkey, that her child was moving into place, the child who had been promised as a guiding light for a war-torn world. The relative peace they had enjoyed the last few years was punctuated by discontent. King Herod was re-building the City of Jerusalem, which should be glorious, yet the costs of building fell heavily on the laborers, the farmers, modest merchants whose pockets were already slim. He ignored the advice of religious scholars in the construction of the temple, and replaced the priests with foreigners. He squandered great sums of money on lavish parties and entertaining royalty. He was a harsh king, sending out spies to discover dissenters and punishing them severely
It was the year of the Census, and they had been ordered to file within their original village, adding orderliness to the process, but difficulties for a young, pregnant woman journeying out of Nazareth. The inns were full and they stood at a threshold, their faith tested.
The boy returned as he had promised, just as the sun bounced the last of its amber light over the distant mountains. He grinned at their relieved anxiety. “Abdul Ghaful greets you,” he said, bowing his head politely to the man. He gathered boldness. “He says to inform you it is not safe in the settlements. If the soldiers come, they could take you, ostaaz.”
“I have done nothing wrong.”
“Oh, that is of no matter to them. No matter at all. You may be a part of the revolutionary force or you just be a man desiring peace, but altogether, you are suspicious. A man of peace, ostaaz, is the most suspicious of all, for he knows many kinds of people, people the soldiers may find valuable knowing. We must move you to the center of town. The Christians are there and the soldiers will not bother them.”
“I don’t have enough money to pay for lodging.”
“You will not have to pay. Your accommodations are very simple.”
He said no more, only led them through the narrow streets and past the tightly paced housing into the graceful center of the town. They felt awkward. Their clothing felt limp and drab compared to the bright, crisp colors flounced by the passing pedestrians. Their poverty made a statement, one that had not been noticeable within the tenement dwellings.
They passed glittering shops, brightly lit hotels, churches filled with pilgrims aching to feel the spirit of the Holy Night. The stars twinkled on, one after another, but in the far distance, a bomb exploded, etching a momentary flash before settling into quiet.
The peace had not come. What had been bright was now stained. What had been hopeful had fallen into despair. The land that had once vibrated with life now flowed with rivers of blood. In every direction sounded the terrible trumpets of war.
They reached a broad avenue where the houses stood far apart, barely visible yards tucked behind their walls and flourishing greenery. The boy stopped at a residence far larger and more immaculately kept than the couple would have expected to invite them for shelter. A man came out at the boy’s petition and glanced briefly at the couple, then beckoned at them to follow him around to the back.
The yard had gardens and stables. A barn occupied one corner. “I’m sorry I can’t give you a place to stay in the big house,” said the man. His accent was thick; either English or American; it was difficult to tell which. He was short, with a reddish brown beard and jovial eyes. “All the family has come to visit, plus we have a few guests from Germany. A party of twelve. You know how it is. It’s the Christmas season.”
Yes, they knew. It had been the same in Jerusalem. Each year, the streets flooded with Christians, behaving mostly as tourists do, but sometimes pausing to reflect and stare a little more gently at this strange race of people who revered the prophet as much as they did but had built a separate culture that included a messenger they had not understood. They had heard the song, but not the thunder that rumbled in behind it.
“We don’t need much. Only a place to rest our heads and shelter from the weather.”
“This much I can give you. It is a small room, in the barn. It was used by the grounds-keeper before he had enough money to rent an apartment. It has a cot. It will be warm and dry… and safe,” he added hesitantly. He looked fixedly at the thick leather belt hanging with a claw hammer and a few screw drivers pocketed like pencils. “You are a teacher, yet you bring carpentry tools?”
“Carpentry has been in the family for a number of years. I know how to build both cabinets and minds.”
“And both are honorable professions. We may be able to find employment in the town for you. You are with the University?”
“The University no longer has a place for me.”
“No, no. Of course not. How thoughtless of me. Abdul Ghaful will have your papers ready day after tomorrow. Was the journey difficult?”
“We left without notice, but I have heard word that my name has been added to a list of potential insurgents.”
“A man of science; a bio-chemist; is not the kind of man your enemies take lightly.”
“I teach farmers how to gain a better crop yield.”
“But you could teach so much more. No, my friend. Your protests will bring you nothing but sorrow. It’s not your fault. Trust does not come easily for some.”
They had strolled casually as they chatted until they had reached the barn. The Christian man unlatched the door and swung it wide. A few cattle lifted their heads sleepily, and a mother pig sniffed at the bottom slats of her pen, a row of tiny pink noses following her. They progressed to a room at the far end, carefully constructed and closed from the rest of the barn, but with large, bare windows staring out at the gathered livestock. Inside the room, another window opened up to the faultless fields, the orderly corrals and a finely graded and graveled running track for the prized horses. A round, wood burning stove, a cot and a wooden crib filled with hay completed the setting.
“If you get cold, old Lizzy still works,” said the man. “Just be careful to keep the grate closed. We don’t want to burn down the barn.”
“I will not burn down the barn,” replied the younger man gravely to the light-hearted tone.
After the strange host left, the fugitive dropped his formalities and knelt on the floor, and took the hands of his wife in his own. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry for all you have had to go through. It has been a terrible time for you, I know, and the danger is not truly over.”
“The danger is never over,” she said, drawing her hands up to his face. “Allah has been good to us. He has miraculously closed the eyes of those who hunt us. He has guided us here and will guide us wherever we need to go. Praise be to Allah.”
And in the night, a bright star shone, but the town of Bethlehem slumbered unaware. The merchants counted their profits for the day, the servants bathed tiredly and readied themselves for the morning, the travelers slept in their beds, undisturbed by the sounds of drinking and festivities in the inn below them.
But the shepherds watching their flocks noticed, and stared with wonder. They drew close to where its radiance shone above a new born child lying in a manger.
The evening deepened around them and the woman lay in stillness. It shouldn’t be time, but the flight and the hours searching the streets had taken its toll. She felt a stirring; an awakening; deep inside her, and prepared for the first liberating movements.
It was strange, however. It wasn’t deep pain she felt, but tranquility. She floated, as though in a dream, scarcely aware of her surroundings.
From a distance, she heard a knock on the door. A woman wrapped in traditional dress stood before them, her face and hair covered. “It is time,” she said.
From her dream, she asked, “who sent you here?”
“I was awakened from my slumbers by a voice that told me I must hurry. I don’t know where it came from. It seemed to be all around me, but the urgency was so great, I came as quickly as possible.”
“You are a midwife?”
“Then Allah has sent an angel.”
A light shone in through the window, brighter even than the gaze of the moon. She failed to any longer wonder. It must be the dream, the fatigue or an intoxicating herb slipped into her tea. Her child was being born, and though born into a world of pain and sorrow, yet entered the world with great joy. All around her, she could hear music, and as the child was swaddled against the chill evening, she reached out for this son who was so gentle, he had not caused a single tear to come to her eyes.
The visitors came, one by one. First the boy, who had brought several of his street-hardened friends, pressing against the outside windows, their noses flattened, their cheeks spotted.
“Is it true your son will become a great leader?”
She laughed. “Who told you this?”
“I don’t know. We just heard it somehow. When he is a leader, we will join his army.”
“I hope when he becomes old enough to be a leader, there will be no need of armies.”
“Because we have won?”
“Because we have finally discovered peace.”
The Christians from the big house came. They carried plates of food, smiled broadly and exclaimed excitedly over the infant cradled in his bed of straw. “He is our own little miracle,” they said. “How wonderful that he should be born during the advent of our Lord.”
Three learned men gathered in the Orient; three men who had peered into the skies to calculate the rotations of the planets and the stars and draw on the steady march of events to arrive at destiny. And they saw by these movements that something spectacular was about to happen. A child was to be born who would forever be remembered as a great leader among men. The heavens had given its sign. A star far brighter than all the others suddenly appeared in the sky and drew closer to Earth until it settled with one brilliant ray shooting down toward the distant horizon. The three men of science and religion hastily prepared to undertake a journey to study this phenomena.
As they drew closer to Jerusalem, they became joyful. The fixed beam of light was close. Even during the day, there was a faint, white glow, that deepened and brightened as the sun set. They eagerly held council with King Herod, sure that he had heard of this promised one. Although King Herod was cordial, he knew nothing about the young prince and encouraged them to let him know when they found him so that he too, might honor him.
However, anxiety began to trouble the three scholars that night, and they slipped away, suspicious of the king’s words, and entered the town of Bethlehem, where the light from the star was the most vigorous. When they found Mary and the child, they were filled with awe and knelt down, offering the finest gifts. To Joseph, they spoke privately, urging him to flee the country for the safety of the family as the king of Judea was unbalanced.
It had been nearly a week since the birth of the child. The husband had found work in the construction of one of the new hotels. The baby was growing strong and healthy despite their meager shelter. The earlier excitement over the child’s birth had faded and they were left in their anonymity.
The three gentlemen arrived late at night, as they were preparing for bed. They seemed out of place in their immaculate suits, and their distinctly Asian features, yet they bowed humbly and begged forgiveness for their intrusion.
They introduced themselves as three academicians from three schools of study; colleagues who had found themselves strangely united in a common endeavor. It had all begun with an anomaly found over Bethlehem. “Months ago,” said the first one, who worked in an observatory, “I identified a light source moving closer to Earth, but that had no known properties, nor seemed to have a rotational orbit. Impossible as this sounds, even more inexplicably, the electro-magnetic spectrum was also unidentifiable, but appeared to have a fixed point; Palestine. My mission was to study the phenomena up close to determine whether its properties were benevolent or malignant.”
“I was made aware of this phenomena in my own course of studies,” stated the second. “My major was in geology, with a specialization in glacial movement, polar ice history and magnetic pole shifting. I discovered some particles that had been previously unknown and to this day, has not been included in the table of elements as the properties broke down within a very short time after taking them to the lab, making the almost completely indiscernible. I could only conclude this is a new element. While corresponding with my colleague, I mentioned this puzzling occurrence and he replied he was also studying a phenomena that has no current scientific explanation.”
“My colleagues and I have known each other for many years,” explained the third, “as we all attended the same University and enjoyed taking side courses in philosophy and religion. My field of study was in stem cell research, but I was hired by a data-mining company tracing the human genome. Your name, and the name of your wife, came up for your remarkable family history. There are no records of inherited diseases on either side, no abnormal behavioral traits resulting in mental disease, no nerve-related disease or dementia.”
It was the philosophical discussions that drew us together,” added the first of the accomplished men, “but mathematics were our ultimate bond. We reasoned that absent a rejuvenating effect on society, a civilization eventually collapses into ruin. Absent natural forces, Earth itself could not long sustain life. As we each went into our specialized fields, we began to notice a rhythm between both the ages of human awareness and intellectual achievement and the earth’s own rejuvenating process. We mathematically calculated where and when the next evolutionary cycle would begin. We are here now in Bethlehem to witness the birth of a new era.”
They were all silent for a few minutes as they gazed at the infant who represented their hope for humanity. “The media fears you,” remarked one of the scientists soberly. “It claims you have discovered a new energy source through bio-chemical means, a weapon of mass destruction, and you will use it as a threat to any who stands in the way of your bid for global power.
There will be many people searching for you. Some will wish to buy or seize your scientific papers, believing you are responsible for this anomaly and that it can be used as a weapon. The Center for Stem Cell Research and Toxicology want samples of your blood and cells. If it is learned you have a child, you will probably never see him again if you are found by any of these foreign agents.”
They bowed their heads silently once more, while the strange radiance continued to peer into the tiny room. “We must leave now. Our report will state that a new element of undetermined origin has been found, but that it is unstable and produces no discernible effects on other chemical properties. There will be no mention of you or your family.
We urge you to flee. We bring you gifts to help ensure safe passage. We give you gold as a medium of exchange, far more stable and more difficult to trace than a bank account. We give you visas so you can change your identities. We bring you also frankincense and myrrh that your child may grow in his full awareness.”
In the early dawn, soldiers raided the refugee camp in the West Bank of Bethlehem. Eight fathers, along with their sons, were taken in for questioning concerning the new weapon they were developing. In the early dawn, dozens of homes were ransacked and families torn apart. In the stillness of Bethlehem, just before dawn, a young couple with their child, boarded a bus leading out of Bethlehem to an unspecified designation.
If a messiah was born in Bethlehem today, how would we know, and how would we react to his birth?