Bethlehem Round the Bend
It was with much anxiety that the adolescent Marcel (in Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time) boarded a train in Paris and set off on his first journey to the seaside resort of Balbec. He was a boy who depended on a familiar environment and predictable routine to feel secure and this excursion to a strange location threatened to trigger one of his asthma attacks. Nevertheless Marcel spent a peaceful night in his compartment and awoke to see the sunrise through the square of his window. Slowly the train came to a temporary stop at a little station between two mountains and Marcel caught sight of a tall girl emerging from a house and climbing a path bathed by the slanting rays of the sun. She was approaching the station carrying a jar of milk. “In her valley from which the rest of the world was hidden by these heights, she must never see anyone save in these trains which stopped for a moment only. She passed down the line of windows, offering coffee and milk to a few awakened passengers. Flushed with the glow of morning, her face was rosier than the sky.”
Marcel goes on to recall, “I felt in seeing her that desire to live which is reborn in us whenever we become conscious anew of beauty and happiness.” Normally his routine way of life would have insulated him from noticing anything or anyone beautiful – but here at a remote train stop situated in a strange landscape his insulation had given way. He was open to the impact of this apparition. He was ready to get off the train of habit and spend the rest of his life with this lovely apparition. He signaled her to bring him some coffee. “She did not see me; I called to her . . . . She retraced her steps. I could not take my eyes from her face which grew larger as she approached, like a sun . . . dazzling you with its blaze of red and gold. She fastened on me her penetrating gaze, but doors were being closed and the train had begun to move. I saw her leave the station and go down the hill to her home; it was broad daylight now; I was speeding away from the dawn.”
I can’t help but think of Marcel’s train as an image descriptive of my life and perhaps yours. Doesn’t life for all of us become in some way a narrow corridor of habit – set upon wheels that convey us rapidly through time, equipped, yes, with windows through which we can catch a glimpse of the passing years, a passing landscape – of other people and an occasional sunrise? Otherwise our consciousness is confined – like that of the captives in Isaiah’s first reading and the Levites of today’s Gospel - to the familiar enclosure wherein we are lulled to sleep by the clickety clack of those wheels that relentlessly carry us through one day after another.
Until, thank God, we slow down enough to arrive at a station called Christmas, where we have at least a chance to stick our heads out the window and see the Virgin Mary, “flushed with the glow of morning”, offering us, if not a pitcher of milk, then a nourishment even more profound: her newborn son, destined to become one day our eucharistic bread and wine! But do we allow ourselves to savor this season of spiritual sunrise? Do we stay long enough in Bethlehem to allow Christmas to do for us what Marcel’s experience of that milkmaid did for him? How does he describe it? “It gave a tonality to all I saw, introduced me as an actor upon the stage of an unknown and infinitely more interesting universe, . . . from which to emerge now would be, as it were, to die to myself.” - - Time to sit up now! The narrow coach of habit that so confines your limbs and vision and mind and soul is coming round the bend. Bethlehem lies just ahead, offering you the vision of a real Sunrise and of a lovely lady dressed in blue and the experience – if only for a moment - of a world permeated with the poetry of God’s Word made flesh.