Back in the 1990’s I was part of a tour which started in Egypt and finished in Israel. Naturally a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was part of the agenda.
I had high hopes for the time, and imagined myself bowing the knee at the Grotto Cave where it is thought Jesus was born. Like the Wise Men of old, my pilgrimage was to worship the One whose coming reshaped all of human history, and all of my own history.
The start of the visit was unpromising. Our tourist busload was one of far too many. I am sure the size of the crowd broke every OHS regulation and indeed, so many pilgrims had lit candles that at one point a small fire broke out and we all had to exit the building while it was put out. Given the numbers, that was no small feat. When we re-entered a system was in place to systematically walk through the church to the entrance of the Grotto, and to be there a brief time before the next group was allowed in.
Due to the delay caused by the minor blaze, everyone was behind schedule and various tour directors were arguing with each other as to who should go first. We heard our groups name being called and surged forward. Our early selection was not popular, and another group protested loudly, one tourist with his fists as he punched an older woman who was part of our party. It was really rather ugly, but we persevered and walked down to the cave where Jesus might have been born.
On entering I was struck by the solemnity of the moment, paused a brief while, and then slowly bowed to my knees. Before I could reach the ground the monk in charge started yelling, “Out, out, out. Time is up. Next group, come in, come in.” I shuffled away with an indignant sense of “Was that it? Well excuse me if I am a little underwhelmed.” Within a few minutes we were back on our tour bus and off to another site where, mercifully, things went more smoothly. Not that it was all over. Later that day we heard that a bomb had exploded not far from where our bus had been parked. We were grateful we hadn’t lingered longer.
“On entering I was struck by the solemnity of the moment, paused a brief while, and then slowly bowed to my knees.”
As I lay in bed that night I remember thinking, “Bethlehem. Crowds, a fire, a violent tourist, bossy religious leaders, a bomb. What a place. Seriously inhospitable.” And then it struck me, “As then, so now…” After all, it wasn’t as though Bethlehem rolled out the red carpet for Jesus. A foreign power had declared the need for the census which had seen Mary and Joseph make the uncomfortable and hazardous journey to Bethlehem; the locals could find no suitable space for his birth; the despotic Herod was so threatened by his appearance that he slaughtered all the babies in the area, forcing Mary and Joseph to flee with the Christ child as refugees to Egypt. If it hadn’t been for shepherds, angels and foreign wise men, the reception of Jesus would have been bleak indeed.
The words of the carol go: “Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” Hardly accurate! It was neither a still nor a welcoming night.
Why Did God Choose Bethlehem?
So why did the God of the Ages select this as Jesus’ birthplace? Pass. Any attempt at an explanation would be hopelessly inadequate, as though it would ever be possible to explain away such extraordinary love and sacrifice.
“And perhaps that is the point. It is because we are never ready for Christmas that Christ comes to us.”
It’s almost Christmas 2022. There is a war between Russia and the Ukraine. Its implications are far reaching. There are many other conflict zones. Globally around 426 million children are living in danger, around 200 million of them in the world’s most lethal war zones. The climate continues to lurch from one new extreme to another. Who knows what COVID will do next. Inflation is pushing the cost of basic goods out of reach. Mental health continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate – and just this week Australia has seen the tragic result of conspiracy theories and paranoia, in some truly awful assassinations. It feels like we aren’t really ready for Christmas.
And perhaps that is the point. It is because we are never ready for Christmas that Christ comes to us. When we are at our most inhospitable, the heart of God opens yet wider and reaches out, inviting us to be reshaped by a God sized love.
Hymn writer Phillip Brooks might not have been correct in thinking of still little Bethlehem, but he was spot on when he wrote: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Christmas – the day fear meets hope, and a new world becomes possible.
About the Author: Brian is a sought-after speaker, teacher, leader, writer and respected theologian who has authored 6 books. After 17 years as principal of Perth’s Vose Seminary, Brian is now founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.
Feature image: Photo by Walter Chávez on Unsplash