Monday, December 26, 2011

In Bethlehem

Sunset over Bethlehem

I walked through the checkpoint to enter Bethlehem. The security wall was before me.  This was my first time to Bethlehem.  I knew where I wanted to end up but I did not know how to get there.  I was reluctant to get into a Palestinian cab so I began walking on a path that seemed like the way to go.

Then I hear a voice, ‘Miss, Miss you cannot walk it’s too far.’ Amazingly (or probably not) this man knew that I was headed to Manger Square, to the Church of the Nativity.  ‘I’ll get you a cab’, he said.  I said, “No thank you, I’ll walk.”  He repeated himself as did I and then he just hailed a cab for me and told the driver to get me to Manger Square.  I conceded.    By now I was accustomed to the kindness of strangers.

He opened the door to the front seat on the passenger side.  I got in.  The window was wired shut to the door that did not close properly, it was an old rickety cab. Already there were two Muslim women in the backseat, dressed in full black hijab - (hee-job).  There was only a slit so their eyes could be seen.  We all were silent as the car began to drive to Manger Square.  We stopped and two more men got into the cab, it was getting a little crowded by now.  Faith and prayer come in handy at times like these.

When we got to Manger Square, I paid the cabbie and I got out.  I was stunned and thought to myself, this cannot be the place where my ‘little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head’. 

Many people have made pilgrimage to Bethlehem since that first starry, gentle night so long, long ago.  They have witnessed Bethlehem in all of its political, physical and religious forms.  Phillips Brooks was one of them but he had a much different experience than I.  Brooks was the rector at Trinity Church in Boston in 1865. He took a sabbatical year to travel.  While he was in the Holy Land, after dinner one night, he took a horse and road to Bethlehem. 

He came to the town on the eastern ridge of surrounding hills with terraced gardens.  And before dark he rode out to the hills where he thought the shepherds might have been and there were still shepherds tending their sheep as there are even today.  He was so moved by this he wrote the words to one of our beloved carols “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. 

This carol touches our hearts like the warmth and softness of an infant’s cheek pressed against our ruddy and weathered ones.  

Brooks uses poetic of phrases to express his understanding of that first night and the incarnation that saves us.  I am moved particularly by verse three

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

There is no fanfare, no bright lights, silently and quietly God gives us Christ.  God imparts to human hearts the blessings of heaven.  Our hearts are filled with so much emotion, joy, gladness, chaos and conflict, sorrow and sadness, and it is here that the blessings of heaven: God’s grace, mercy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness and love enters in.

Even though we live in a world of sin, a misaligned world, a world with much violence, prejudice and hatred STILL Christ comes to us. 

For Christians all you need to say is Bethlehem and instantly we think of Mary and Joseph, the lowing cattle and the shepherds, and we know God’s whole salvation story for us: Christ’s birth, death, resurrection without even having to explain.
  
Yet Bethlehem is a real place.  It is the Bethlehem of history, it is the Bethlehem of Brooks’ time, and it is also the Bethlehem of today.  This is what I learned when I tried to get to Manger Square and then was affronted by the Bethlehem Discount Souvenir Shop, and a Muslim majority because so many Christians have left.  I also learned, as I sat quietly in the Grotto of the Nativity that we are bound to Bethlehem through the covenant of Christ, not its locality or condition.

Christians may be leaving Bethlehem but Bethlehem never leaves the Christian.  Bethlehem is in our hearts.  Let us prepare a manger in our hearts so that God can impart this beautiful love.

Perhaps we have to have a wilderness experience that will open us up to accept this gift.  Or maybe we just have to concede to the imperfections that lurk so deep within us. We all hurt and heal, hate and love, experience sorrow and joy.  We all long.  The longing we feel at the Christmastide is not only for peace, love and happiness in the world. 

The longing we feel is more importantly, and maybe unknowingly for Christ the incarnate.  In Christ God has promised to be with us, to accept us, abide with us today and always.   The manger was less than perfect yet it accepted the baby once upon a time.  The manger was uncluttered, no pillow shams, or dust ruffles, or infant mobiles.  It was simple.  It was quiet.

The less than perfect manger gave Jesus a place to begin his life.  Our less than perfect hearts can too.

Christmas comes but once a year, Christ lives forever within us. God has met us in those dark streets where there is no light and meets us with Christ’s light each day and it all began in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is salvation, love and blessing.

Bethlehem is the hope that our life tomorrow will be better than today.

Hold the Christ child in your heart this night, visit Bethlehem each day.
Allow God’s grace and forgiveness to enter your heart and be at peace my friends.
Amen.

1 comment:

Robert Geiss said...
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