Funny how I thought I’d just have one post on Advent Conspiracy this year, and now I’m on my third one. Earlier this week my husband received and email from his prayer partner and our pastor asking for input on what keeps you from worshipping Christmas fully—the theme for tomorrow’s message. The Toolman emailed back his response, but I decided to write this post on what my answer would have been had I been asked.
In 1998 I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land with my father & stepmother and a group from their church. One of the many sites we visited was the town of Bethlehem –the very place where the original Christmas occurred. Surely one would be able to fully appreciate and worship the babe in a manger there if anywhere in the world! FYI: I didn’t have time to dig in the basement for my own pictures—I’ve still got holiday baking to do and presents to wrap. (Hmmm, there’s a clue for attentive readers) So these are all images I found on Wikimedia Commons.
We were actually in Israel the week before Holy Week, so I’m guessing we were at the high end if not the very peak of tourism crowds. While the focus was on the Easter sites in Jerusalem, anyone who’s traveled around the world to be there wasn’t going to pass up the nativity sites in Bethlehem—especially since they’re only 5-6 miles away.
I confess my excitement was building as we got off the bus and so the sites familiar but till now seen only in books or on TV. We walked through Manger Square and had to significantly bend over to pass through the entrance known as The Door of Humility.
And once through the doorway we beheld …..a line as long as any you’ll find waiting to see a shopping mall Santa. It seems we weren’t the only tour group who thought they’d be clever and leave the Jerusalem crowds behind that day. We had plenty of time to study these columns in our hour plus wait.
Finally we reached the main altar area (see below). I’ll be frank here and say there must be something about flash photography that makes the ornate lamps and decorations appear glistening and gleaming. My impression in person was that everything was extremely dirty and dusty—like a neglected (and slightly tacky) antiques store.
What you can’t see in this photograph were the streams of people kissing the icons in front, nor the two “kiosks” on either side where priests were selling incense. Perhaps it was being distributed with the expectation of a donation, all I know was that money was being exchanged—apparently Jesus’s rant about “a den of thieves” had fallen of deaf ears. You may not realize that the Church of the Nativity is administered by three different denominations:Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic. I don’t remember which two were doling out the incense, but as most of the exchanges were done in foreign languages I imagined them saying “Buy our incense and your prayers will reach Heaven faster!”
The stand to the right seemed to have the brisker business, perhaps because that side also had the entrance to the grotto, cave-like area where Christ was born. At this semicircle of steps leading down all semblance of order from the line dissipated. People wriggled and squeezed toward the doorway—holding hands with the others of their group so if one made it in, the others could snake in behind them. That old Christian belief that the last shall be first was tossed out the window—there were busses waiting and schedules to keep.
The Grotto holds two features—the first is the spot where “it is believed” Jesus was born. If you ever travel to the Holy Land you’ll get used to that phrase. Again, flash photography make this look more gleaming and less dusty. People stand in line to place there hand on or kiss this spot. Lest someone become overwhelmed with awe and want to actually worship, there is a priest standing by to instruct them to “move along.”
This spot I remember wasn’t administered by the Roman Catholics. They had their own attraction across the room: the spot where Mary laid Jesus in the manger. At some point in history, a pope donated the marble replica that now stands there. As I stood nearby, the voice of Indiana Jones popped in my head, “That isn’t the manger of a carpenter’s son.”
I left the Church of the Nativity with far different emotions than I’d arrived with. The excitement and anticipation were gone, trampled on by the crowds, the commercialism, the constant urging to move forward and not linger, the gaudy decorations and the people seeming to worship them rather than the real Reason for the Season. I left with disappointment that the day wasn’t living up to expectations.
The story isn’t over though – we got back on our tour bus and our next stop was…the middle of nowhere. There were no crowds, nor any buildings to be seen. I don’t know if we were in the spot actually designated “Shepherd’s Field” or not, but while we stopped to read the Bible passage about the angels bringing the good news a Bedouin boy came over the hill leading a flock of goats. We stopped to help him draw water from a well. We watched the kids frolic and butt heads. It was simple and natural and the closest I’ve ever felt to the Christmas story.
Before I close I want to say, I’m not anti-religion or anti-catholic and I’m not saying you shouldn’t go see the Church of the Nativity if you have the chance. What I am saying is that if you’re struggling to get that Christmas spirit this year maybe you need to lay aside the trappings of Christmas—the decorations, the entertaining, the cooking and baking, the crowds. Remember, God himself didn’t enter the world with great pomp and circumstance. He chose a very simple story: a young girl, a humble manger, and some shepherds as witnesses.