Sunday, December 25, 2011

Bethlehem—Closer Than You Think

Celia found herself gazing at the night sky, amazed at the countless stars that seemed brighter than she’d ever seen them before, then wondered where she was. She looked around and saw a glow in a hillside nearby. The light was streaming from what appeared to be a sizeable cave, and in the radiance spilling out she could see a line of people winding up to it.
      As she drew nearer, she noticed the people beside the cave were dressed in the ancient garb of the Holy Land. Just as she drew up to one side of the cave, she saw some men leaving, who looked rather grubby and shabby, with long sticks in their hands. No, not sticks, she realized…crooks—they were shepherds! She quickly tried to see past them into the cave. She gasped. There was the manger, and the baby, and a beautiful young woman, with a bearded man nearby. Somehow, some way, she was at the stable in Bethlehem.
      The last shepherd was rising from lying prostrate, to kneel by Mary, who was holding Jesus. The old man took the tiny baby’s hand in his, and immediately the little fingers curled around the hardened, aged thumb, while the man kissed them reverently. Then he clumsily got to his feet and shuffled off.
      Next came the wise men, much more splendidly dressed, but who also knelt and with great humility, obsequiously laid their gifts at Mary’s feet.
      Following them came what Celia supposed must be townsfolk from Bethlehem. Many followed the example of the shepherd, kneeling and touching the babe with awe-filled countenances. Others seemed more awkward, and went through the same motions but with faces marked by doubt and discomfort. Celia was indignant: why were these people here if they didn’t believe? Didn’t they know this was the Messiah? Hadn’t they heard the witness of the shepherds and the words of the wise men?
      More and more figures were still lining up in the twilight outside the cave. What a lot of people lived in Bethlehem! thought Celia. But as they came into the light, she saw that they were dressed differently. First came some in togas, then others in long gowns and tall caps or in armor. But after a while, she forgot about their clothes in watching their faces. Among these too were mixed those who clearly recognized the Christ in the little infant, and those whose reverence and kiss were belied by the speed and uneasiness of their movements.
      Gradually, there was a change in the expression of these “barely believing ones”, as Celia came to think of them. Furtiveness or hypocrisy came to be replaced by boredom and nonchalance. These people were in modern clothes and slouched in line, looking around at their neighbors or off into space. They sauntered over to the infant and tapped His little hand like workers clocking in a time-card, and then strolled away as if they were sleepwalking.
      Then Celia recognized one of these dreamy ones coming out of the cave: it was herself!—in the very outfit she had worn that morning to Mass. She watched herself amble down an aisle and plop down in a pew, while the choir concluded the Communion song.
      A chill trickled down her back, then she woke up.

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