Off By Six Miles

The Night is a book written by a Jewish man, who after going through the traumatic experience of the concentration camps during the Second World War loses his faith in God and in humanity. His name is Elie Weisel.

The shock is immediate. As the villagers from Sighet in Transylvania prepare to enter the camp, they see a ditch where babies are being thrown into a burning flame. “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed….Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

He witnesses many hangings. But one remained impressed in his mind. A young boy, who is well liked and described as having the face of an angel, is hanged on the gallows along with two adults. The adults die right away, but the young boy, being so light, struggles on the gallows for over half an hour.

The inmates are required to pass by and look at this boy dangling on the rope still alive. A man behind Elie asks, “Where is God now?” Elie hears a voice within him answer: “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.” That night – the author adds – the soup tasted of copses.

Life is what it is. And part of life is suffering. And suffering always forces us to ask ‘why?’ Weisel solves the problem quite easily, he eliminates God. One cannot have God and suffering. It is either one or the other. Either God is powerful and prevents suffering from happening. Or God does not exist and so suffering has the upper hand.

Perhaps deep down a number of us takes the same position. The quixotic story of the Three Magi may possibly shed some light.

This story that Matthew recounts finds its origin in Isaiah 60. The Jews, around 580 BC, had been in exile in Iraq for a couple of generations and had come back to the bombed-out city of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem is destroyed, the homes and towers torn down, economy in shambles. They are in despair.

In the middle of the mess, an amazing poet invites his discouraged contemporaries to look up and hope. “Rise, shine, for your light has come.” Isaiah anticipates that Jerusalem will again become a beehive of productivity and prosperity.

So when the Magi arrive they instinctively go to Jerusalem. But the scholars of the time inform them that they have the wrong text. The right text is Micah 5:2-4: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrata . . . from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old . . .”

The Magi head for Bethlehem, a rural place, dusty, unnoticed and unpretentious and they find him there.

It turns out that the Messiah will not be the triumphant king who will solve all problems – as we would like him to be – but a simple man who will bring well being by his attentiveness to the folks on the ground.

The Messiah is different from expectations. God is real because He is always diverse. He always disappoints us. A God who can enter into these two centimeters of our brain is not a God. He is a puppet.

The story of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises.

Our story is also the constant choice between journeying towards conceit, self sufficiency, and the crazy expectation of solving all our problems. Or journeying towards innocence, weakness, walking without understanding.

Perhaps some of you have been to see the small cave in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. There is a big Church over it and to enter the cave, where a star embedded in the floor marks the birth of the King, one has to stoop. The door is so low you can’t go in standing up.

The same is true of life. You cannot see the world, life, Jesus Christ standing tall – you have to get on your knees.

Bethlehem is six miles south of Jerusalem. The wise men missed their goal by six miles. How many miles are we off track?


(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.