Today, as we all sit down underneath our Christmas trees, and open our much-needed(??) gifts, let us re-focus and remember those in Bethlehem, the birthplace of the One who would certainly be fighting-out against materialism if He were here today. I know I need some “perspective” as I am in the midst of the Christmas season. And I’m guessing that every other American Christian needs some perspective as well. Below is a piece that my good friend Becca Hylander wrote, as she reflected on being in Bethlehem during Christmas last year. She served with the Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer program in Cairo for one year.
It is hard to get to Bethlehem today.
In fact, I think Mary and Joseph might have had it easier than a modern day pilgrim.
Oh sure, I didn’t have to walk from Cairo, where I was living at the time, to Bethlehem. I didn’t have to ride a donkey. When I arrived in Bethlehem, I didn’t have to sleep in a stable.
But I did have to maneuver my way across borders, through checkpoints, over roadblocks, and around an 8.5-meter high concrete wall.
One might think that the birthplace of Jesus would be overflowing with holiday cheer. But Bethlehem in the 21st century is eerily empty and shockingly stark, even at Christmas time.
In place of lights, tinsel, and garlands are banners that say things like “Stop the Wall” or “Don’t convert Bethlehem into a ghetto” or perhaps the most poignant, “We live in the holy land but we can’t feel the joy of Christmas.”
Instead of bells ringing and carolers singing, one hears the sounds of tanks and bulldozers competing with the sounds of stone throwers and homemade rockets. But even these sounds are drowned out by the cries of victims on both sides.
Checkpoints, roadblocks, barbed wire, a concrete wall, empty stores, deserted streets, flattened olive groves, demolished homes, squalid refugee camps‚…this is the face of Bethlehem today.
In previous years, I was told that one would have to wait in line for hours to visit the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve. Not so last year and I can imagine not so this year either.
And so the day before Christmas Eve 2003 I found myself alone in the place where the Christ child was born.
I slowly walked past mosaics from the Middle Ages alongside bullet holes from the 21st century. What a perfect symbol of the unholy war in the holy land.
I descended into the dark and damp grotto of the Nativity and for a moment, the visible signs of war – tanks and bulldozers – disappeared. For a moment, the sounds of war – guns and bombs – faded.
In their place was the sweet smell of incense and the single flame of a candle being lit by a young Palestinian Christian schoolboy.
I wondered what he was praying for as he lit his candle.
Was he praying for peace in Bethlehem? Was he praying for just one day without the sights and sounds of war? Or maybe he was simply praying to do well on his mid-year exams or praying for that special Christmas gift.
After he left, I took my candle and I lit it in the flame that he had left behind. And all of the pain that I had witnessed during that week in Bethlehem – it was almost too much for me to even know where to begin to pray.
And so I simply prayed, “Come Lord Jesus. Come again into Bethlehem. Come again to shine your light in this dark world.”