Let us pray.
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today. Amen.
Those of you who know me well will not be surprised to learn that I am loath to travel anywhere that is not within walking distance of a Starbucks. And, let me tell you: Bethlehem is not the kind of place that has a Starbucks.
During the summer of 2010, my mother decided to take her puzzlingly religious son along on a business trip to Israel as a present for his twentieth birthday. We spent the bulk of our time in Tel Aviv, where my mother’s international legal conference was taking place, but after the conference was over, we also journeyed to Jerusalem so that I could get to see the holy places I had read and heard so much about. We traveled through the various regions of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which sits over the tomb and crucifixion place of Jesus; we surveyed the Wailing Wall, the very last part of the Jewish temple that is standing; we walked the Garden of Gethsemane and felt the cool shade underneath its trees. We were very comprehensive. But as we approached the end of our trip, I knew something was missing. How could I travel all this way to the so-called Holy Land and not see Bethlehem, a mere 5 miles away? How could I not visit the location I had sung about before I even knew how to sing? How could I not experience the place of Jesus’ birth?
However, I had no idea how complicated it would be. I had seen all the news reports about Gaza and the West Bank, but up until that point of the trip it had all been some hypothetical reality, some distant part of Israel’s history. Sure, there was more security than I was used to and every now and then someone would talk about a suicide bombing that had occurred at some point in the past, but for the most part Israel had just been lovely hotels, picturesque beaches and notable historical sites. Bethlehem suddenly made everything CNN had talked about more concrete. For starters, Bethlehem was located in a part of Palestinian territory that was surrounded by a long wall that separated it from Israeli-held territory. Though Palestinians could come into Israel in order to work if they obtained a special permit, we learned, Israelis as a rule were not permitted to cross into Palestinian territory. As a result, our guide, who was Israeli, was not permitted to accompany us. He told us that going to Bethlehem would in fact be possible and safe, but that he would have to find a Palestinian to meet us once we crossed over the border checkpoint.
My immediate sensation upon emerging from the checkpoint into Bethlehem itself was a dreary and sad one, and that sensation sustained itself for the duration of our short 90 minute stay in Bethlehem. The streets of Bethlehem were dirty and chaotic; the infrastructure was weary and rundown. It was a far cry from the sleek urbanity and attractive sights of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and you could tell that it suffered from being cut off from its big city neighbor. When we finally got to the Church of the Nativity, I continued to be underwhelmed. There was definitely no Starbucks in sight. The deteriorating nave of the church had no glorious stained windows or other elements to catch the eye, and I think it’s safe to say that our own less-than-a-century old building is a greater architectural marvel than that many-centuries-old place of worship. In the crypt of the church, in a place one could only notice by huddling down to see it, a star marked the place where Jesus was purportedly born. Had someone not been there to point it out to me, I could have walked right by it. The whole crypt was sparer and less remarkable than pretty much any other small chapel I have seen before or since, and as a whole did not seem to come close to befitting the glory of the Savior’s birth. After seeing the crypt and as a conclusion to our excursion, my mother and I were whisked to a large, tacky gift shop where we had been previously instructed to spend a certain amount of money in exchange for our safe passage from the checkpoint to the Church and back. I arrived on the other side of the wall appalled at the state in which one of our tradition’s holiest cities was in and wondering how a powerful and populous religion that claimed to follow Jesus of Nazareth could let his birthplace remain so inaccessible and in such obscurity and disrepair.
I bring all of us this up not because I intend to advance any particular political agenda this morning. My master’s degree is in divinity, not in public policy, and I do not think I have any right to pass judgment on any foreign policy matter, much less something as complicated and charged as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, I’d like to ask a question from a more spiritual and theological angle: what if Jesus came to Bethlehem today? Could we even manage to get to him? Would we even bother to try? And if somehow he were within our reach, would we even have the ability to notice that he was there?
When I speak of Bethlehem, of course, I don’t mean solely the literal Bethlehem five miles outside of Jerusalem, though I certainly don’t mean to exclude it either. I mean all of the Bethlehems of our lives—the places from which we have been shut off or from which we have shut off ourselves, the places around us and inside us that are dirty and chaotic, weary and rundown, tacky and bare, the places we stumble across that scarcely seem to warrant a second look. What if Jesus came there? Would you welcome him? Would you sing “Glory to God in the highest” and bring him your gold, frankincense and myrrh? Or would you pretend you didn’t see him and keep on going? Would you scratch your head and look the other way?
The truth is that the Bethlehem of Jesus’ time was not altogether different from the Bethlehem of ours. Micah calls Bethlehem “one of the little clans of Judah,” which does not exactly make it sound as if it was on the same level as the large, royal city of Jerusalem. Bethlehem may not have been as politically and religiously controversial when Jesus was born there, but there’s no question that it was then, as it is now, small and overlooked. In that sense, the birthplace of Jesus matches the rest of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Just as Jesus was born in one of the lowliest of places, a place so easy for anyone to forget about and disregard, Jesus was born to a young, lowly, ordinary woman, one whom it would be easy for us to not pay attention to or notice. In making Mary the woman blessed among others, God does what he does in making Bethlehem the location of Jesus’ birth and what Mary in her overwhelming joy praises him for: he lifts up the lowly.
Legend has it that the American preacher Phillips Brooks wrote his famous Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” while recalling his own travels to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve in 1865. And it appears, from his carol at least, that Bethlehem was the same little, modest town then it has always been. May his lovely carol honoring the humble place of Jesus’ birth be our prayer this Christmas season, revealing to us the many, small ways in which God comes to us now, in this time and place.
O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.
How silently, how silently,
the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming,
but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him
still, the dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!