A Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year. Or as they say in Greece, “Kala Christougianna!”
As millions of people across the globe pause this day to reflect on the birth of Jesus the Anointed One by Mary, the elect, chosen one of God, I felt it appropriate to skip ahead in the Israel recap and tell of our experience in the Little Town of Bet Lekhem.
Bet Lekhem, or as we say “Bethlehem”, is one of the most hotly disputed cities on the face of the planet. It’s only 10km south of Jerusalem and is located within the West Bank. No Israeli citizen, whether Jew, Christian, Muslim, or atheist, is allowed to enter the city limits. We had to unload the bus and get on another one with a Palestinian driver and a Palestinian Christian tour-guide. The entire city is surrounded by cement walls about 15ft high with barbed wire across the top. After passing through the checkpoints it was as if we had entered another world, and in a way we did. Bethlehem is a Muslim city. It’s poorer, dirtier, and more third-world than the rest of Israel.
The main place we went in Bethlehem was the church of the Nativity, which is actually shared by 4 or 5 different Christian denominations. It’s a large cathedral built over the supposed birth place of Jesus, which was really the back of a small cave system. When Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem for the census there was no room in the inn, but really the inn wasn’t where they would have stayed anyway, at least not an inn like we think of. They really would have stayed in a deeper cave system which was set up for temporary housing of all the travelers. The “stable” was in the very back of the cave where the livestock and pack animals were kept. There was no room in the rest of the cave, so Mary and Joseph were forced to go all the way to the back of the cave to the stable. It is here that the Virgin Mary gave birth the the Messiah, the King of the Jews.
The church itself was built shortly after the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and stood longer than any of its contemporaries. When the Muslims were marching through the holy land to take it back from the crusaders, they were destroying all the cathedrals along the way. But when they came to the Church of the Nativity, they saw a portrait of the Magi from the East and left the building standing because their people had already been there.
Below the building, beneath the altar area is the traditional location of the birth of Jesus and where he was laid in the manger. We were able to go down there and were hurried through the line, not giving us much time to take it all in. It was neat to say that we have been there, but it’s not the location itself that affects me, it’s the event and the people. I don’t worship the place; I, like the magi, worship the King who was born in that place on that day 2ooo years ago.
From the city of David, the great king of Israel, came Jesus, the Great King over all the earth. From the “House of Bread” (lit. translation of Bet Lekhem), came the Bread of Life. From one of the most disputed cities in modern history came one of the most disputed historical figures.
As we celebrate this day as a remembrance of the birth of our Savior, let us not fall into the trap of celebrating the day itself, or traditions, or materialism for that matter. Let us continually celebrate the coming of God to His creation in the form of a helpless, vulnerable baby. He grew up, matured, and lived a perfect life during a time of hostility, political upheaval, and concern about the future. I would say that life hasn’t changed much since those days, just a different context. It’s amazing that the story of Jesus, from his miraculous birth to his sacrificial death, continues to have the same impact on the world as it did 2000 years ago.
Merry Christmas to all, and let us all be thankful for the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.