The light left me two years ago. The Scriptures taught to me as a child by the rabbi in my village spoke of a day when the stars would fall from the sky. He called it the “Day of the Lord,” and he warned the small group of boys who gathered at his feet to learn Torah that God would judge His people if we did not learn His ways and keep His commands.
I wondered even then if God had not already judged us or even left us to our own devices as I looked around to see Roman soldiers patrolling our neighborhood and taking our money with their dreaded taxes. Why wait for the light to fall from the sky when it seemed that Caesar and his cronies like Herod had robbed us of both the warmth and the light?
But all that changed years later when I met Rachael and she gave me our child, Aaron. He became the light of my life. I remember the day of his dedication when the rabbi lifted him up to God and spoke his name for the first time to the people gathered. That day “alleluias” rang out in the small room that was our synagogue. Never had the meaning of the word become so clear to me. In our language, “alleluia” means “offer praise to God.”
Aaron was my way to put the stars back in the dark sky of what life had become under an enemy occupation. But then came the time that the stars fell from my sky and the alleluias I longed to offer God became silent. The fever that came to our village took many. We were helpless in the face of whatever unnamed disease this evil visited on us.
With no money to buy the strange herbs and spices that some used in the face of such fevers we simply watched as the light left us. I held Aaron and bathed him with cool water. Rachael was weak from battling the demon herself. She whispered to me many times that all would be well. Her faith often exceeded mine. She knew from the beginning that my faith was a struggling one. I had a hard time believing what I had been taught as a child by my religious teachers.
They had spoken of promises that one day the light would shine in the darkness and that God would deliver us. As I held Rachael’s burning hand, she would still smile and say, “All will be well.” All I could do was look back at her with love laced with fear and say nothing.
Aaron died in my arms. I am not sure if Rachael died from the burning in her bones or the grief in her heart, but I lost her a few days later. All was darkness and silence.
I asked God to take me and shook my fist at the darkened heavens as I shouted my questions of “why?” Why not take me and leave them? But of course, the only reply was the silence I heard as I looked into the darkness. I ceased not only my alleluias; I stopped talking to God at all. It seemed that God was as helpless as we were in the face of the darkness. All those promises of coming light and hope died with my Rachael and Aaron. O my dear Rachael, all is NOT well.
The same rabbi who taught me the words of our ancient text tried to comfort me with words from the past. He told me that real faith was being able to whisper alleluia when we could not shout it. We had to trust God in the darkness as well as in the light.
I listened out of respect for him, but I knew that my silence was deep and that I had no reason any longer to have a relationship with a God who allowed so much darkness in a world that needed light. The rabbi’s response to me was weak indeed when he told me that we must continue to wait patiently for the “Coming One.” He assured me that the same Scriptures that seemed to fail me in my time of need promised that God would send a deliverer to shed light to His people.
I thought to myself, “Are you too going to tell me that all will be well?” I was tired of empty words.
I bowed my head and simply walked away from him and from God. I went back to my work in the small vineyard miles away from our village. I had hoped the vineyard would be my gift to Aaron for him future. Now, though my grapes still produced a small amount of wine for myself to sell, their taste to me was as everything else: bitter.
And so, the bitterness became almost unbearable when I heard that there would be yet another taxation. I was told that the Romans required that we must return to our home village to register. I had not been back to my home for many years. I had created a new life with Rachael and Aaron and my grapes. Though it was but a few miles to Bethlehem, I hated even the thought of returning.
I made myself go. I knew that I would have to stay the night in the local inn because I did not want to associate with any of the people from my past. I would rather be with the strangers that would be at the inn. I did not want to respond to questions of efforts to comfort me. I was beyond comforting. Darkness had become my companion and silence my language.
I arrived early knowing that the village would be crowded with others who were the victims of Roman tyranny. The innkeeper told me how lucky I was when I asked for a room for it was his last to give. “Lucky, you say?” I looked into his face and realized that he was new to that place and must have acquired the inn from the old man who used to run it when I was a child. This newcomer did not know my story, so he could assume my luck; and in a way I was lucky – this stranger would not ask questions or feign sympathy. I simply responded in a cynical whisper, “O yes, I am a lucky man all right.”
I took the room at the top of a narrow set of stairs. I wanted to be alone. Later in the evening, I heard the innkeeper explaining to the countless people who came to his door that he simply had no more space. I wondered what all the people who came to register would do because the nights had become cold. They simply would have to make do. I had become used to that.
Sleep did not come easily to me ever since that night my deep darkness began so I stepped out of my room and started to go down the stairs late in the night, thinking I might take a walk. The innkeeper was again standing at the door explaining to some couple that he had no more space. I could see that the woman was very much with child. I wondered why in the world her man would have brought her with him at this time.
The thought came to me for only a moment that I should offer my room. Two years ago, I would not have hesitated. I would have made room for them, but now there was no room in my heart for a life of giving. There was only darkness and silence, so I turned away and walked back up to my room. I did not want to walk past them and have to see their faces. I wanted them to remain faceless.
I tossed and turned; wrestling with my bedroll in an effort to sleep. I somehow had the strange thought of the story of Jacob wrestling with his angel as I struggled with my blanket. But there were no angels in my barren life with whom to struggle. I tried to turn at an angle to avoid the light coming in the only window in the room. Why was there so much light on this dark night? I stood up and looked toward the sky and noticed an exceptionally bright star. Had that always been there?
But of course, it had. I almost laughed when I realized that I had long since quit looking up at the stars for light, so it could have been there anytime over these past two years, and I would not have noticed. Still, it seemed strange to me that such a bright star was present in such a dim world.
I finally gave up on my effort at sleep and walked down the stairs. Rest would not come, and I knew it. I might as well take one of the walks that I often took on long nights.
As I left the inn, I turned to walk toward some of the old familiar streets of Bethlehem, but I noticed a lantern hanging near the stable that was behind the inn. I looked around and the only light that was really noticeable in the darkness was that star and the light from the lantern. Interesting how you notice the light when it is so very dark.
I started to walk toward the place where my parents used to live before they died. The house had been sold years before to other people. As I stepped toward the street of my childhood, I heard the soft cry of a baby. The cry came from the direction where the lantern hung. My heart froze in the silence. The last time I heard a child cry was my Aaron in his suffering. I wanted to walk away from the dreaded sound. I wanted my silence back. I needed it.
But something lured me toward the sound. Perhaps it was my heart breaking yet again at the sound of a child that beckoned me toward the light.
I looked into the stable and saw them. It was the couple who asked for a room when I turned my back on them. For the first time in years, I felt something other than grief. I felt shame. What had I become? Was I so lost, broken, and wounded that I could not hear the wants and needs of others? My darkness had surrounded me so much, and I was so furious at God’s silence and helplessness that I myself had become silent and angry.
I stepped toward the light. The man noticed me. I started to turn away. This should be a private time. What was I doing intruding on their sacred space? Sacred, why did I think of it as sacred? I was a stable, for God’s sake. Then I remembered how sacred the birth of my Aaron was. I remembered the alleluias we sang at his day of dedication. I felt again the pain of losing something so sacred.
Then he spoke to me. I was embarrassed to even be there. Somehow, I thought perhaps he knew I was the one who had turned away at the door. But then he would not have been able to see me, but it did not matter he did not know. What mattered all of a sudden was that I knew. And then for some reason, God showed up in my thoughts. What a time for the silent God to crawl out from behind the silence. Why did I care now that God knew of my neglect? What did God have to do with any of this except that neglect had become for me God’s way of relating to this dark world?
My thoughts were interrupted by the man again saying something to me.
“What?” I asked. Great response.
He looked into my face as the light seemed to come my way. “I said, did you come because you know?”
“Know what?” I replied.
“Did you come because of the child?”
Tears came to my eyes. These were different tears than those of the past. This time it was the way he said “the child.” Did I come because of the child? My God, man, if you only knew how lost I was because of a child.
For some reason, my next response to him was beyond anything rational. It was as if the word “child” was knife that had cut into the place where I was storing all my pain and memories. I told him my whole story. I was crying and sobbing like some madman. I told him of my Aaron and my Rachael. I told him of my darkness and my anger. I told him of those haunting words of my Rachael that “all would be well.”
What was I doing? This poor man did not deserve this. His wife had to deliver her baby in a stable because of my indifference, and here I was burdening him with my grief. I stopped my foolish babbling and looked through my tears to see his wife holding out something to me.
“I heard your story, my friend,” she said. “Your pain is deep and your anger at God’s seeming absence is understandable. I am sorry for your loss. My dear Joseph’s question about the child must have seemed almost cruel to you.”
I looked into her eyes. She must be weak from her night of labor. What a selfish and cruel person I had become. Here I stood sharing my pain with two people who were alone in their time of need because of a world full of people like me.
With the light coming over her shoulder, she walked toward me. I am not sure what really happened next. I thought I heard voices behind me. It was almost like the sound came from the sky. It was as if the stars were singing. The heavens had been silent for me for so long that I knew this must be some strange reversal of my grief teasing and taunting me.
I was brought back to myself when she handed him to me. I looked down into her reaching arms and saw the child. His tender, silent eyes looked at me. No, how can I say this? He looked into me. Never, even while gazing into the face of my beloved Aaron, had I peered into such a face.
Then she spoke, “My dear friend, hold him in your arms. He is the one the world has been waiting for. He is the child that can fill your empty life. You may have wandered this dark night looking for a lost child, but you have been found by a child that has come to find you. This little one is the Promised One. And God wants you to hold him just now.”
I know I trembled, but I knew I must be steady on my feet with what I now held in my arms. This could not be happening.
I looked down into his face. I am not sure how to say this. His face seemed, well, full of light. Was it a reflection of that bright star that I had noticed earlier, or was it simply the way the light from the lantern shone behind him?
I was lost in Bethlehem. I was lost to what love meant. But somehow in my arms I felt that love was again born into this dark world. As I held the child in my arms, I heard something move behind me. I turned to see a few sheep and a group of shepherds. Two of the shepherds looked toward me and saw the child I was holding. They said nothing but knelt down next to the manger from which the child’s mother had taken him.
“You came because of the child, yes?” was the man’s question. What was this music in my mind? Who was it that I held in my arms? For a moment there was something present that I had not experienced in years. As I stepped toward his mother to give her back the child, I could not believe what she whispered as she took him. She smiled at me and simply said, “Now, all will be well.”