For three months, I lived on the edge of Bethlehem. If I walked at a good clip, I could be in Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity, in forty minutes. I took this walk often, and most often I would walk right past the church, through the square and down the hill until I reached the L’Arche Community. There I would spend a morning or afternoon working alongside people with and without intellectual disabilities, making Christmas crafts out of felted wool from local sheep.
After those many weeks, we sort of got to know each other. I say “sort of” because only a couple of them could speak English and I spoke just five words of Arabic. We communicated with gestures and words we knew the other could not understand. Mostly we communicated with kindness. My favorite moment with them was when, after being at the work table together for an hour, one of the intellectually disabled young adults, Haddid, said something in Arabic to one of the English speakers. He smiled and nodded. I asked, “What did she say?” “She said that you seem happy to be with us.”
If I could have communicated only one thing to them, that would be it exactly. ‘I am happy to be with you.’ To hear those words in Bethlehem, no less, where by Jesus’ birth God showed us how much he wanted to be with us, was a beautiful thing.
You can imagine, then, that when I left them for the last time, I was sad. After the hugs and good-byes, I walked teary-eyed into the streets of Bethlehem, back up to Manger Square with the sun now set over the western hills of Judea. City workers had just finished setting up the large artificial Christmas Tree in preparation for its ceremonial lighting a week later. I stopped close to that tree and stared at it as I felt the holy grief of having loved and been loved and saying good-bye. Then, like a sign from above, that Christmas Tree lit up for the first time as the workers sought to confirm that all the lights were working. The beauty of the tree confirmed the goodness, even the holiness, of the jumble of emotions I was feeling. If I could freeze a moment in time, I might choose that one.
Then the moment was interrupted. After witnessing the lights for less than a minute, three young teen-age boys approached me, aggressively trying to sell me Bethlehem souvenirs. I told them “La shukran,” “No thank you,” but this did not deter them. After asking them politely to leave me alone again and again, I finally relented and gave them five shekels for what they said cost three shekels. They refused to give me my change, and one of them tried to put his hand in my pocket to get at the other coins in there. I was so frustrated and angry that my sacred moment had been interrupted, but when they started to paw at my clothing I felt a sudden violent urge to strike at them with my fist—an impulse I’d not felt since I was their age, probably. Thankfully, I did not follow that impulse.
My only escape was to literally run away, and so I ran the hundred yards or so to the door of the Church of the Nativity, and entered where the boys would not follow. There are no chairs in this church, and so I leaned against one of the sixth century pillars, fifty feet away and a floor above the birthplace of Jesus. Here, with my pulse starting to calm a bit after the rush of adrenaline from fleeing, I reflected on all that had happened in those last thirty minutes. I had felt the joy of love and communion, the sadness of loss, the awe of beauty, and then annoyance, anger, hatred and fear—the whole spectrum of human experience.
This was the human experience God chose to enter when Jesus was born here, I thought. He wanted to be with us. He enjoyed being with us. He desperately tried to show us how to love another by embracing the outsider, and showing mercy to all, even those who hurt him and stripped him of his clothing. I renewed my desire to love like Jesus loved even as my heart continued to beat with residual fear. Sometimes love is easy. Often, when it matters most, it is not. He taught us that, too, thirty-three years after his birth, up the road six miles from Bethlehem on a hill outside Jerusalem.