"Something begins, begins;
Starlit and sunlit, something walks abroad
In flesh and spirit and fire.
Something is loosed to change the shaken world." ~ Stephen Vincent Benet
The road beneath my feet was dry and rocky as I walked toward Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. It's a coveted destination for pilgrims like me; and to those of us who sojourn here even the stones that scatter the path are sacred.
I didn't use frequent flyer miles or have my passport stamped to get there. I simply gazed toward the heavens until the light from one particular star seemed to pierce my consciousness. It became brighter and brighter until its radiance enveloped me; suddenly I was standing on a dark path in a land that wasn't mine. Yet I was no trespasser in these Judean hills. I was headed for home. I traveled alone, as we all must.
The star shone brightly as I walked forward not knowing how far the manger was or how I would I find it; but I knew I would. My mind was happy, peaceful and content.
My feet were the only noise I heard until the screams of the children. I turned and saw a little boy and girl holding hands as they ran. The girl fell and the boy tugged at her arms until she rose again. Not far behind the children, an innumerable throng of men with crazed-eyes panted after them in hot pursuit. Pedophiles were hunting their prey. "Run!" I yelled to the children. "Run!" The children and those that pursued them ran past me like specters, their images passing through trees and rocks.
I wanted to help the children, but I couldn't. They weren't tangible to me here on this road. I could not save them. My heart was overcome with pain.
The path fell silent again, but my peace was shaken. I couldn't move. I forced my feet forward just so I could hear my soles scraping against the dirt once more. It was soothing, reassuring.
A gentle breeze brushed by me, rustling through the trees, calming my nerves.
The calm was short-lived. A shaft of light rose from the ground in front of me. Rising up from the earth and through the light, there emerged a throng of people. Naked and writhing, they pursued each other like hungry lions. They whipped and beat each other, they twerked and licked and moaned and shrieked as they fulfilled every sexual lust known to man. It mattered not what sex they were, nor what putrid means they used to fulfill their desires. Not even animals or human corpses were forbidden. I stumbled backward as they moved toward me, eyeing me with salacious delight. Backward, backward I went until I fell and raised my arm to shield my eyes from the horrific orgy. A strong gust of wind swept by me and suddenly it was quiet again. I cautiously lowered my arm as my eyes scanned the path. Everyone was gone; only the starlight remained.
"Get up; keep walking," I urged myself. I rose up, brushing the hallowed dirt from my clothes.
My destination came into view after I crested a small hill. I could see firelight and shadows flickering in the distance. "Closer. I'm getting closer," I thought. "I must walk faster."
I became aware of a woman walking toward me on the path. She moved quickly, motioning as though she were angry. In a flash her face was near mine -- yelling, shouting obscenities; pushing me, taunting me. Others appeared to join her from nowhere until a mob had formed. They weren't just thieves after money. They wanted to take anything that wasn't theirs. Just then a ghost town of brick buildings and plate glass windows rose up on each side of me. The crowd picked up the sacred stones from the road and shattered the windows, then leaped through them like wild horses. They crossed back again, their arms filled with things that were not theirs. They clung to their spoils and howled at the sacred star with evil delight.
I reached down to yank out a shard of glass that had pierced my shoe. My foot was wet with blood. I could see fires igniting in every direction; acrid smoke began to envelop me. "I've got to turn back!" My heart was pounding. "No, I must go on," I resolved. I limped forward, staring straight ahead; my teeth clenched in determination to continue down that venerable path.
Soon I was past that scene. It had faded behind me with every step I'd taken. The blood in my shoe was gone. There was no pain. I walked faster, faster; almost running.
As I came to the outskirts of the town, I began to hear shuffling noises from between the flat-roofed stone houses. A tall figure dressed in black approached me. "Are you a Christian?" he asked. "Yes." I said firmly. "Will you denounce the Jews?" he asked. "Never!" I said. He raised his hooded head enough for me to see a grotesque smile form across his snarling lips.
"Show him the Christians and the Jews!" he yelled as more black-cloaked figures armed with swords emerged from the darkness. They thrust men, women and children to their knees in the street. "Stop!" I pleaded as the black clad figures swung their swords and innocent blood splattered the air. Human heads dropped all around me with sickening thuds; their silent eyes still begged for help. I could not comfort them. I could not save them. I threw myself at a dark figure to stop the swift downward thrust of his sword as it whooshed toward the neck of the little girl in the blue dress. I pushed back with all my strength until my body plunged out of control, slamming into the side of a hill.
I must have passed out. When I came to, the carnage was gone. The path and sacred stones were no longer stained with the blood of the unstained.
I pushed myself up and ran with all my might, like a man on a train trestle with the iron beast barreling behind him.
Yet as I ran my ears were filled with a cacophony of drumbeats, chants and rhythms. Then chattering voices rose and blended with electronic beeps, ringing, droning airplanes and piercing car horns. I covered my ears in vain to stop the noise.
Then I began to see images spinning around me like a million theater screens in a whirlwind. I saw people watching TV's, talking on cell phones, crowding stores, staring obsessively at laptops, poking frantically at electronic devices in their hands. I saw news reports and politicians; natural disasters and plagues. I saw traffic and car wrecks and millions of people crammed into streets, subways, elevators, airports. My throat struggled for air as I watched the murders of those who walked the earth, and those killed in the womb.
The worst was yet to come: I felt what they felt. My empathy, sympathy -- even my love --disintegrated as I absorbed their apathy, anger, bitterness, hatred and vengeance. Almost worse, I felt their loneliness, fear and despair.
"Too much! Too much! Too much!" I screamed. The noises drew down to long, low-pitched echoes. The speed of the images lessened like a slowing merry-go-round until they crumbled and fell like dust. All I could here now were the sounds of the ancient town: a donkey braying, the clatter of coins, voices murmuring through a window where an oil lamp burned dimly.
I walked on weakly, my body sick and drained of strength. My heart felt like it had melted, dripping hot wax through my veins. My mind was overcome with sadness and confusion. It was as though insanity itself were beckoning me into its giant chasm.
It was then that I looked up to see that the star I'd followed had come to rest over an opening in the side of a hill.
I collapsed; exhausted in body and soul. I felt a hand lift my arm and I staggered to my feet, my eyes fixed only on the entrance to the stable ahead of me. I trudged forward and fell against the heavy wooden beam that framed the threshold.
It was then that I saw the woman lying on her side in the hay, covered with a blanket. Her arm lay under her head as she gazed toward a tiny, red-faced, swaddled babe who squeaked and cooed softly by her side. Kneeling nearby, a man dipped a wooden ladle into a bucket, carefully cradling the water until it reached the woman's lips.
The animals surrounding them were strangely quiet, as if some secret spirit of reverence had whispered in their ears: "Hush. The baby must sleep."
I fell to my knees on the roughhewn floor and cried. My body had found its strength again, my mind eternal peace. A light -- greater than all the darkness I'd endured -- had blazed the heavens to save mankind. In that instant I knew that like the baby
in the manger, I too had overcome the world.