“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”
I love that Christmas hymn! In my mind’s eye I can envision some small desert village with smoke rising from the chimneys of modest homes into a starlit night while shepherds tend to flocks nearby. I can imagine the newborn baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger while the villagers smiled on. I must admit that my recent trip to the Middle East almost ruined the hymn for me. Bethlehem was nothing like I imagined.
|Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (You may notice the red and yellow flags from the tour company.)|
As our tour bus entered the outskirts of Bethlehem, we were greeted by a large red sign with a message in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. It read, “The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and against Israeli law.” That was not exactly the welcome I was expecting. Our bus navigated the crowded streets dodging cars, pedestrians, and other tour busses. It was not the quaint, bucolic village I expected. Like most of the area around Jerusalem, it was hilly and roads wound up and down the hillsides lined with homes, apartment buildings, and the occasional inn or hotel. Eventually we arrived at a large parking structure for busses where a man in a paramilitary uniform directed traffic. Somehow, with shouts and hand signals, our driver managed to jam our bus into the underground building with more than twenty other busses. We followed our guide with his yellow flag brandishing the tour company name – “Fun For Less” – through the chaotic parking structure with the smell of diesel fuel in our noses. Even before we left the parking lot, we were attacked by vendors selling everything from women’s scarves to ornate, olive-wood carvings. We climbed the stairs and walked up the street to tour of the Church of the Nativity, the oldest Christian structure, built over the grotto or cave where Jesus Christ was reportedly born. The noisy street was crowded with shuffling crowds of tourists, aggressive vendors, and annoyed local residents hurrying about their business. It was nothing like I had imagined, and the phrase “How still we see thee lie” did not come to mind.
|Britt entering through the Door of Humility|
We entered the Church of the Nativity by stooping through a very low door appropriately named, “The Door of Humility,” which opened up into the main hall adorned with 44 columns. Although built for Christians by the mother of Emperor Constantine, the site today is divided and administered in parts by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic churches and is a divided structure. We passed from one area to the other and eventually down into the grotto. The dark cave would have provided shelter to the weary traveling family unable to secure more comfortable accommodations. I imagine it would have been a source of peace and comfort to Mary and Joseph in difficult circumstances. Since that historic night, the site has experienced its share of turmoil – ransacking armies, terrorists holed up seeking sanctuary, and even brawls between monks of different Christian sects. I was reminded of the “dark street” mentioned in the hymn intended to represent our current human condition. “Yet in the dark street shineth the Everlasting Light.”
|Inside the Grotto|
After touring the Basilica and the grotto, our group moved to an alcove in the courtyard. As we listened to a lecture from the educator Michael Wilcox, the loudspeakers from the local mosques sounded the afternoon call to prayer – “Allahu akbar!” – and were reminded of the religious and political tensions of the region. Then, while Christian tourists, priests, and monks ambled by, we began to sing Christmas hymns. We were not professional singers, but the acoustics of the alcove carried our voices. A crowd soon gathered around us. During the singing I looked into the faces of our group and saw the devotion in their eyes. These were good people trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ in their lives. The Spirit testified to me, “Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
|A passing monk|
After my experience in modern Bethlehem, I imagine ancient Bethlehem differently than I did before. Like today, the ancient city was full of political strife. After all, Joseph and Mary only traveled to Bethlehem because of the decree of an occupying ruler. Like today, it was full of the hustle and bustle of a busy town with street vendors, shopkeepers, and travelers. I imagine it was a noisy, smelly place with its share of discontent and contention. Life, with all of its imperfections and irreverence, filled the ancient town of Bethlehem. Yet, in the midst of all of the commotion and banality, a miraculous child was born. My guess is that many in the town of Bethlehem didn’t even notice the birth because they were so caught up in living their lives. They were so busy building, selling, cleaning, eating, sleeping, and just existing that they had no clue that their best and only hope had just been born in a small cave in their town.
Are we like the ancient inhabitants of Bethlehem? Are we so busy studying, texting, entertaining, eating, sleeping, cleaning, playing that we miss our best and only hope? Life, with all of its activities and demands, can sometimes distract us from the miracles right in front of us. Are we so busy with the demands and distractions of this life that we miss the gift of eternal life that Christ brings us. “How silently! How silently! The wondrous gift is giv’n.”
Bethlehem may be nothing like I imagined. It may not be the scene of peace and tranquility I envisioned. However, in the midst of it all, Christ was born. Bethlehem may not be at peace, but I testify that the Gospel of Jesus Christ can bring us everlasting peace. I testify that He is the wondrous gift given to us today to bring and hope to our lives.
Take a moment this Christmas season to stop and unwrap the wondrous gift of Christ.
|The "site" inside the Grotto|