It must have seemed like the whole world had been inconvenienced – everyone except the leaders and bureaucrats who ordered the chaotic mess. What were they thinking?
What ordinary citizen could afford to walk away from a shop or farm or business and travel for days, simply to register for the privilege of paying more taxes? With the town’s resources stretched and tired traveler’s incomes pinched, tempers flared. They usually do when people feel out of control.
Only two people could afford to appreciate the unprecedented circumstances. Eventually a few more outsiders on the bottom rung of the social ladder understood, and later some inquisitive foreigners showed up, but most people had no idea the world was about to change. They dragged themselves into the next day not knowing they had just entered a new era.
Seven years ago, I stood in crowd of hot, tired people from every place except the town we were in. We all waited for a chance to squeeze into a ridiculously small room with a metallic star around a hole in the floor. This place, the tourist machine told us, was the birthplace of the Christ.
Our guide had his doubts. He made a quip that locations of famous events in Israel were more likely to be determined by the availability of parking for tourist busses than archeological evidence. He favoured an empty field north of the edifice. Nevertheless, on tired legs and aching feet hundreds of us shuffled forward on a worn stone floor as the cacophony of many languages surrounded us.
Today, looking at photos, I remember the crowds in Bethlehem. It was the Sabbath. Christian sites were open on the Sabbath, so it seemed like a good day to go. Bethlehem no more lay in peaceful stillness that day than I suspect it did on the day Joseph and Mary arrived for the census ordered by Caesar Augustus.
We passed armed soldiers at check points beside high walls and rolls of razor wire. Later in the day, loud fighter jets passed overhead while we wandered around ruins on the outskirts of town. A man in our group, who was a native Israeli raised on a kibbutz, became very serious and immediately took out his cellphone.
“This is not good,” he said as he waited for someone to answer. “The Israeli air force never flies exercises on the Sabbath. They’re on a mission.”
We felt the tension in the air. When we returned to our hotel, we learned the planes had attacked a convoy of trucks in Lebanon. With only partial information available speculation and rumour filled in the blanks.
I don’t think I’ve had a discussion with anyone in the past month, on an online group call, or by text, or yelling across the fence, that hasn’t begun with observations of these strange times and unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in. As the repercussions of a halted economy begin to sink in, and voices express more irritation with inconveniences, speculation and rumours fly.
The lull in the daily-ness of life in the past six weeks provided me with time for reflection. I see a young Jewish couple in my mind’s eye.
The woman is very pregnant. They have walked for days. Her back aches and she needs to pee again. The baby’s head is engaged and intermittent cramps make her stop and lean on the man while she waits them out. Yet she and her husband smile at each other and exchange knowing glances. They know what this means.
The God who sent an angel to bring both of them into his plan played the politicians and experts who thought they were in charge. He inconvenienced the whole country to arrange to get them here in this place at this time. Without fanfare, an ancient prophecy is about to be fulfilled. In the midst of enormous upset, strain, and confusion, the world was changing forever.
On this night, at the perfect moment, predetermined from the beginning of time, the Messiah arrived. God with us. The crowds queueing in the streets, worried about finding accommodation and having enough shekels to pay for everything, had no idea they were entering a new era.
The fullness of time arrived.
Nothing would ever be the same.
Joseph and Mary knew. God graced them with his favour – not with a life of painless ease, not with social approval, not with wealth, but with inclusion in his plan. He shared the secret of the ages with them.
God smiled and the angels rejoiced.