The next day was Christmas Eve and everyone in our hostel was making plans for spending the day in Bethlehem.
Word was that the Latin Patriarch would lead a procession from Jerusalem to Jesus’ birthplace at noon. But the big question was: How would such an old man walk 10 kms to Bethlehem in just 1 hr in time to lead a service there at 1pm?
We got our answer, but again, not what we expected!
We waited inside Jaffa Gate for the procession to begin: people crowded around; an Israeli soldier came over and joked with me about my cowboy hat: ‘Ringo?’ and I nervously laughed, not wanting to upset his sub-machine gun.
Suddenly, without any announcement, 2 jeeps loaded with soldiers and more machine guns sped through the square with 3 Mercedes Benzes following just as quickly out the gate – so quickly most of the waiting crowd didn’t even get a glimpse of the patriarch in the back of one of the cars! In fact, it was a while before we realized the procession had indeed come and gone! A few in the crowd started to laugh, realizing the farce, but soon a general ho-hum and laughter took hold and the crowd dispersed. No processional reality, let alone regality, and most headed for special Israeli Egged buses waiting outside the gate to drive them.
But again, I was determined to walk, pilgrim-style, into Bethlehem. After all, it was sunny, a little cool in the shady spots, but it was only 10 kms, so about 100 others, mostly freaks like me, started walking. A couple of us gradually got ahead of the others as we made our way out from the Jerusalem suburbs into the Judean wilderness. Just over halfway, we stopped at Rachel’s Tomb, a simple white-domed shrine with a Jewish canopy draped over the resting place of Jacob’s wife: one of Israel’s oldest shrines.
Then just a short distance further, we turned a corner...
And there, in the middle of the road, stood a little lady, turned sideways, one half of her moving forward while her other half seemed to be running in circles. Probably 65, with a kerchief pulled around her graying hair tied in a bun at the back, and a shopping bag draped over her arm, she looked like she was bargain-hunting for the nearest thrift store.
But my first impression soon proved unfair and incorrect.
‘Say, do any of you speak English?’
She sounded exhausted, but her question rose strong, above the road's busyness.
‘Of course!’ we answered.
‘Oh good! Do you know how far it is to Bethlehem? I’ve been walking, started in Jerusalem, for quite a while now and no one understands me when I ask. Some say it’s just a little further and I go a little further and then someone else says it’s just a little further more and I go that and here I am, and I’m still not in Bethlehem.’
‘You can see it there, right now!’ we both answered and pointed to the church steeples just a short ways ahead.
‘Thank God,’ she sighed. ‘I’ve come so far!’
And then she recounted her story: one of the greatest determination tales I’ve heard!
She’d been doing missions work in the US Mid-West and on her retirement, decided to go on a 3-week pilgrimage to Fatima in Portugal and Spain. But while there, she had such a great time, she found it hard to take it all in.
‘You know, they’re always giving you a drink with breakfast, lunch, mid-afternoon, always before you go on the tour to the sacred places and when you finally get there, you’re so woozy and floating around, you miss half the place!’
She was so struck by what she’d seen and experienced, she decided she wanted more and go further… to Rome.
So she asked the tour director to reimburse her return ticket home.
However, they refused, saying she had to fly back with the rest of her group.
But she remained adamant in her desire to go anyway, although she only had $20!
She determined: ‘I’d have hitch-hiked, just like all you young people, if I had to!’
However, the rest of her tour group came to her rescue at this point and together they collected $210 for her – just enough for the price of her ticket home from Rome. So she purchased a train ticket, took a night train across southern France and Italy to save on hotel costs, and spent a week in Rome visiting the sites: very special for a Roman Catholic! She'd then planned to take a train to Paris and fly back to the US, but just when she was leaving the Rome train station, she met another couple who'd just come from Greece and they convinced her to again change plans and head further east to Athens.
‘It’s so close,’ they said, ‘and warmer too and you can see all the places where Paul preached!’
So she traded in her train ticket to Paris for a boat to Athens and after a week in Greece... wouldn’t you know it? she met others who told her the Holy Land was only a short ways across the Mediterranean and…
‘You know, I couldn’t miss that, especially since this might probably be my only opportunity to ever go there!’
So she spent the last of her money on a ticket to Israel.
She’d been staying with the Franciscan Fathers in Jerusalem for 3 weeks, visiting all the holy places, waiting for Christmas so she could visit Bethlehem on this special day, and now, here she was, approaching her final destination on her marathon journey… and somehow I’d been chosen to share this special moment with her.
Yes, she talked like a gabby old lady, but she had something essential to say. Her voice rang with such exuberant excitement and her story - such a testament to the triumph of her will and faith - sang like fresh lyrics to the bells chiming Christmas carols. Together, they joyfully filled the air as we rounded the final turn into a sun-flooded Manger Square. The square was filled with confusion, but her simple song sounded a distinct melody – harmony and humility amid the surrounding cacophony.
We had to bow low to enter the door of the Church of the Nativity. Miss Davis (I think her name was Alice) was quite disappointed at how bare it looked inside! I, however, was quite impressed by this simple lack of ostentation in a Greek Orthodox Church: its columns showed only traces of what had been once vivid, colourful paintings and looked abstractly authentic, quite appealing to me after all the Jerusalem churches' embellishments.
We made our way down into the grotto where they said the manger had actually been, and sure enough, a priest was there, standing ready at the door with an outstretched offering plate!
However, Alice, with me now in tow, surged right past him into a crowded little room, and there in the middle of a marble floor was an inlaid golden star: her destination, and now mine, Jesus’ manger birthplace - slightly modified!
And as others stood by, pressing against the cave’s walls, gawking as if unsure of what next to do, this true pilgrim, completely at peace with her God, herself, and her surroundings, had but one focus and took the last steps of her journey.
Without hesitation, she got down on her knees.
I watched her for a moment and then knelt also beside her.
She'd gotten her beads tangled around her neck and couldn’t loose them, so she turned and asked me to help.
‘Say, madam, could you help me?’ she fumbled, totally unaware that I was the guy who’d walked that last mile with her. It took a little to get her loosed, and then she leaned forward. By this time, I was right in step and followed her as she kissed the top of the star.
And the revelation of the moment came as I heard her softly whisper:
‘Thank you, Lord, for bringing me here.’
Faithful throughout, thankful to the end: what beautiful and timely words from a child of God!
Oh yes, she gabbed, and she well fit that annoying caricature of the American tourist that I so despised, but I got to see and share grace at that moment in all she carried within her. She had overcome insurmountable odds in her quest: a virtual Senora Quixote! No ordinary person; hers was an exceptional story and what a privilege I had to share this priceless moment with her!
During our walk, she’d asked me about my journey, and when I told her about hitching across North Africa, her curiosity stirred and she asked: ‘What are the people like? Is it dangerous? Could I do that?’
I left her at the star in the manger and I knew her journey was not finished yet.
I never saw her again, but in that very short time she gave me access to a spiritual realm such as I’d never witnessed.
I’ve never forgotten her: this angel in a very human form – a messenger from God to guide me right to the very heart of the Christmas miracle and reveal a pilgrimage beyond just my wannabe!