Come With Me to Bethlehem

December 9, 2012

Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us.

Luke 2:15

Let’s go to Bethlehem, the shepherds said to each other, and off they went.

This morning, let’s put on our imaginary hats, and join the shepherds as they visit the town where Jesus was born.

Most of us complain about the commercialization that is identified with Christmas.
But it probably was that way in Bethlehem when Joseph and Mary arrived two thousand and twelve years ago.

It was a sort of holiday, when Jesus was born.
It was census day, a day to be enrolled for the purpose of taxation.
It was not a day for merry-making; nobody, but nobody, likes to pay taxes.

Census day was also a time of travel,
a time of family visitation, and returning to your family roots.

Bethlehem was crowded when Joseph and Mary came into town.
The Inn was full, and the innkeeper was busy serving other customers.

It is logical to assume that Mary and Joseph were not the only family turned away that night.
There were just too many people in town,
and the Inn was never meant to hold more than a handful of guests.

But the innkeeper was sensitive to the needs of a pregnant teenager.

There still was space in the courtyard where other travellers had tied up their animals.
To one side of the courtyard was a cave dug out of the hillside.
It had served the host family well by providing shelter for the animals and a place of storage.
It was there that Mary delivered her first child, and laid him for comfort in a manger.

The tradition that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a cave is one of the oldest Christian traditions. The outdoor animal shelter provided privacy as well as warmth.
And it’s over a cave that the Church of the Nativity was built in the fourth century.

Meanwhile, the town continues to buzz with people.
Merchants are unaware that God had visited the planet;
that divinity had entered the world on the floor of a stable;
that the Messiah lay in the arms of a teenager surrounded by animals.
No one knew the heavenly secret, except for group of lowly shepherds on the outskirts of the village.

They saw, heard, and believed that something supernatural had happened that evening as they were tending their flocks.
Never before had they seen an angel, or heard a choir of angels praising God.
They followed the instructions of the angel and rushed into town.
Once they found the courtyard, they excitedly informed Mary and Joseph what they had seen in the heavens. And the good news of joy to the world they had heard.

The sight of angels in the night sky, and the cry of the baby in the manger, was something they would never forget.

For our second imaginary trip, let’s skip ahead to December 1865, and join Phillips Brooks from Philadelphia, on his tour of the Holy Land.

Brooks was a well-known Episcopal clergyman who wanted to experience for himself, as authentically as possible, the emotions of the first Christmas.
So he took a two-month leave from his church over the Christmas holidays, and travelled to Palestine.
In Jerusalem he hired a horse for the five-mile ride to Bethlehem.

He arrived in the afternoon of Christmas Eve in 1865.

The road led to Manger Square, and after looking around, he slowly rode back to the outskirts of town and the shepherd’s fields.
Already there were hundreds of other pilgrims from around the world who had come for the same reason he had come—to see the fields still occupied by shepherds.

Among the stone-fenced fields he saw a cave surrounded by olive trees.
In the cave, strangely enough, they had put the local shepherds for the tourists to see.
Brooks continued to look around the semi-arid fields covered with boulders and groves of old olive trees.
Somewhere in those fields we rode through, Brooks mused, the shepherds who heard the angels praise God two thousand years ago, must have been watching over their flocks.

Brooks looked down the hill towards the town.
There, on the slopes of another hill, was Bethlehem.
Tiny dots of light were appearing, as candles and lamps were lit for the evening activities.

It was Christmas Eve, and soon the Manger Square would be filled with pilgrims and choirs from around the world. Worshippers mingled with tourists; pilgrims with horsemen.

Brooks own soul began to fill with anticipation for the evening midnight service, as he untied his horse and rode back down into the town.
The town had come alive with merchandising from dozens of stalls.
Tourists wanted souvenirs and reminders of their visit to Bethlehem,
and the local crafts people had carved, hammered and assembled hundreds of take-away articles.
Brooks was deeply disappointed that the regular citizens of Bethlehem paid so little attention to celebrating the birth of Jesus, as if nothing important had happened there, except something to sell to tourists.

He thought of the great spiritual struggle that had motivated his own journey to Bethlehem.

He realized, however, that the true meaning of Christmas is not a matter of place, but of the soul.
For Brooks, Christmas becomes Christmas only when the Christ child is born anew in the heart of the believer.
The essence of Christmas is not a matter of geography but faith,
not a matter of history but of hope: Emmanuel—God-with-us.

Brooks joined the thousands of pilgrims for the great Catholic mass in the Church of the Nativity.
The liturgy of the mass moved him deeply, as centuries of religious history were bridged in a single evening, and as the scriptures about Bethlehem were read in Bethlehem.

The choirs sang beautifully, and created music in his own soul that kept alive the memory of the visit for years.

Brooks remained in an elevated mood for some time after the midnight service.
He stood among the pillars of the old Church of the Nativity, close to the star on the floor above the cave where tradition says Jesus was born.

The whole church was singing, hour after hour, with splendid hymns of praise to God.
Again and again it seemed to Brooks as if he could hear voices he knew well—angelic voices—telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Saviour’s birth.

Brooks wrote a poem about the visit that had left such an impression on him.

Brooks returned to America the following month but it wasn’t until two years had passed
that he once again returned in his mind to his visit to Bethlehem.

He was working on the Christmas Sunday School concert at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia.
It would be nice, he thought, to have an original song for the service.
He had written a poem for a song some years earlier.
Perhaps its time for another poem.
So he quickly composed a poem of five verses about his visit to Bethlehem two years earlier.
He called it, “O little town of Bethlehem.”

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,
Above the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.

Brooks gave the poem to a real estate friend and organist for the Sunday School, Lewis Redner, and asked him to write the music for it.
Redner tried unsuccessfully for a whole week to come up with the melody.
Finally, the night before the concert, he woke suddenly from his sleep “with an angel strain sounding in his ears.”
He immediately jotted down the melody that came to him as “a gift from Heaven.”
Later that day, the Sunday School children inaugurated what was soon to become another Christmas carol classic.

Put on your imaginary hat once again for a visit to south central Ontario, and the village of Blyth in 1879.

It is a true story as told to me by Dorothy Scott, a member of my Blyth United congregation.
It has a number of parallels to the Bethlehem story and bears repeating. Here is her story.

My grandparents came from England in 1876 with three children. Three years later, my grandfather rented a house and farm near Blyth and moved his family.

It was a long journey in wagons over the rough, corduroy roads to reach the farm. They carried the children and all their belongings with them.

When they arrived, they found the house was still occupied by the previous tenants.
What to do? They decided to stay and move into the barn’s milking parlour. My grandfather was a carpenter and boarded off one corner of the stable. My grandmother scrubbed, whitewashed the walls and ceiling, and tidied the place for her growing family. This was their living quarters until the other family moved out.

Grandmother was expecting, and it was here she gave birth to her fifth child, on May 10, 1879, and named her after an aunt in England. My grandfather took the newborn infant and wrapped her in a home-sewn blanket. He put clean straw in the cattle manger and laid her in it. Just like the baby Jesus.

Dorothy was 85 when she told me the story, and gave me permission to share it as a modern-day Christmas story of a baby’s birth in a barn.

Put on your fourth and final hat for an imaginary trip to Bethlehem as it is today.
In many ways, Bethlehem has remained the same rural village outside of Jerusalem for over 2000 years.

During the Six-Day war in 1967, it was turned over to the Palestinian Authority, and became part of the West Bank territory.

Before the war, the majority of its 20,000 citizens were Christians,
But after the war, the Palestinian Muslims began to squeeze out the Christians, and made them feel unwelcome.
For example, the First Baptist Church of Bethlehem was declared illegal, and the minister, Rev Dr Khoury, physically attacked.
Arab Christians left Bethlehem by the thousands, and today they are a small minority in the city of Jesus birth.

So once again there is not much room for the Christ child in Bethlehem.
Except for Christmas.

Bethlehem remains a world tourist attraction, and over Christmas, there are three main crowded Christmas services.
On December 25, the Roman Catholic church celebrates its Midnight Mass.
On January 6, the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates its Christmas.
And on January 13, the Armenian Church leaders are given permission to hold their own Christmas service.

In conclusion: I hope you enjoyed these imaginary trips to the Holy Land.

The faith meaning of Christmas is not a matter of place, but of the heart.
And seeing the town of Bethlehem does not make one a believer.
But it does strengthen belief in the good news announcement of peace and goodwill to all.


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