What is it that stirs your affection for the Christmas season? After already shopping on Amazon, decorating a “Grinch” themed Christmas tree, and getting excited about a blow out party, this question hit me hard on the first Sunday of December. Our church’s Chancel Choir performed Lessons & Carols attempting to put us in the correct mindset for Advent, scripture was read, hymns and carols sung. This year, however, I could not help but wonder about the journey to manger while they performed “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” To hear the words and imagine the scene this heralded classic conjures up is to envision a quiet, still, sleepy town. Without much commerce and a boring existence by it’s residents one might think of a place from folklore…from the pages of a children’s bedtime story.
The truth about Bethlehem began to unravel itself to me not quite two years ago. To remember my grandparents saying “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” best summarizes the reality I internalized about the small modern day Palestineian town I visited in 2016 to see where God entered the world more than two millennia ago.
Driving south approximately 10 miles from Jerusalem we arrived by charter bus into the Westbank station. On foot tourists pour onto narrow traffic filled streets bordered by businesses and ladened with car fumes. Enterprise thrives. Touristy shops woo passersby to purchase a “special” gift for someone back home. Carved olive wood figures of the Holy family, Holy water and bronzed postcards promise Bethlehem’s memories will linger well beyond the day’s tour. Business people capitalize on trendy Western ideas…think Stars & Buck….latte anyone?… and the Hard Rock (not even close). Incidentally, it took me a while to figure out why I couldn’t find Christmas ornaments in this predominantly Muslim populated region.
On foot and donkey Mary arrived with Joseph in Bethlehem, his ancestral home, to find a town robustly alive as each Jew had been ordered to return to register for the Roman census. Commerce and bustling activity enlivened the small, countryside village to the point no one could adequately accommodate the pregnant girl. Like the modern streets today’s tourists encounter, the Holy couple found them crowded and commercialized…at least by first century standards. They settled in for the evening in the stable….umm…make that the cave where the local innkeeper housed livestock. Not far from this cave is the field…the only livestock field in Bethlehem (not something history could mistake) where the lowest class peasant shepherds would be stunned by angels announcing the Messiah’s birth. It’s funny…maybe even sad…depending on how you look at it…that when you visit the field now it is marked by a large entry arch resembling a theme park attraction that says “Gloria en excelsis Deo”
We ascended the hill toward a rock like fortress topped by a belfry. One could liken the Church of the Nativity more to a medieval European castle or prison than to a holy shrine. Here, through an incredibly short door (constructed low so that people from days of old mounted on horses could not enter and deface the church) and through the highly ornate Greek Orthodox worship space pilgrims arrive at the entrance to a grotto a few steps downs. To your right you see a space where Mary is said to have given birth to God’s Son. Steps away is the spot marked by structure that reminds guests of a fireplace structure marking where the child was placed…in those swaddling clothes…among the animals in the stable. If you rewound time and stripped away the silk fabric coverings, gilded gold and silver oil lamps, and marble floors, you would be standing in a cave. The present day embellishments are nothing more than man’s attempt to honor Christ’s birthplace….Christ’s birthplace….it bears repeating because in this place they tell us Christmas, as God intended it to be, originated.
Centuries before Martin Luther erected the first Christmas tree, a world away from Bing Crosby’s idealistic White Christmas, in a culture that could never imagine a festive rum beverage like an Egg Nog, before some genius Coca Cola marketing person introduced us, somewhat sadly, to a secular St. Nicolas, guides proclaim Jesus Christ entered the world in this space. Wow! That He entered the world at all should be gift enough; to be near the space…potentially in the very space He entered should be life altering, perspective changing.
So much has changed since Mary gave birth to His son. So much has changed since February, 2016 when my travel group first experienced Bethlehem. The world is a different place; my world is a different place. North Korea is a larger threat, the Opioid crisis has exponentially proliferated; a president with no political experience was inaugurated; children graduate; Alzheimer’s claims our loved ones; dear friendships change and change us; people we love become afflicted with cancer; young couples fall in love and marry; #MeToo victims step forward …. and this list could go on ad nauseam.
This coming February Julia Brotherton, Cindy Carpenter, Katie Dirks, Thaedra & I shall join my friend, Victor Nammour, in the Holy Land to follow the steps of Jesus through His homeland. We shall be in the Church of the Nativity at some point during our pilgrimage. It is not a vacation, rather a mind opening, heart broadening exercise.
Someone created an online video recently I can only loosely recall. It’s message: “God doesn’t hate gay people, you hate gay people. God doesn’t love America, you love America.” Fill in the blank with almost any hot button religious or socio-political issue (prayer in schools, 2nd amendment rights, taxes, partisan politics, Confederate statues, etc.) and you can get mad. It’s easy to get mad at Nancy Pelosi, Paul Ryan, Roger Goddell, Meryl Streep, Kim Kardashian, and cancer, and taxes, and AIDs, and crystal meth, and Racism, and… anything that does not fit into our subjective plans. The video’s message made me think about how we put, if not force, God into our proverbial box, to be shaped by our individualized paradigms. We conveniently make God into what we want Him to be so that we can rationalize our perspectives. We build ourselves and condemn other people so that we can feel good about our lives. This truth can be a tough pill to swallow, until we humble ourselves to consider we are all, as we are told in Genesis, created in His image, to honor Him. Christ came not only to redeem us, but to be a great equalizer among us. Like it or not, we are all His children loved equally by Him.
This Christmas through the fudge, the “Let it Snow”, broken blown glass ornaments, piles of wrapping paper, lost gift receipts, travel frustrations, already looking ahead to New Year’s Eve plans and being completely irritated by another radio station playing “It’s Christmas” (r.i.p. Tom Petty) I am reminded of a single Bible verse. It might be the Bible verse people remember most often; it may be the most quoted….almost to the point it sounds cliche. But, the words of John 3:16 are never cliche: “For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” This is the gift of God to us; the true gift of Christmas.
It took me almost two years to realize it. Having been in the place He arrived and anticipating a return to it complete with the thoughts and emotions it evokes stir my affection for Christmas.
What stirs yours?