Merry Christmas from Bethlehem!
As the Christmas season nears, what are the chances that we happen to be in Bethlehem? That’s pretty powerful!
We have driven to Bethlehem, crossing from Israel into the West Bank, located in, what is now called, Palestine. Although it is completely controlled by Israel, Palestine is a landlocked territory of 97% Muslims with a small pocket of 3% Roman Catholics who live in, guess where…Bethlehem! Our tour guide, with her Israeli passport, is not allowed into Muslim occupied Palestine, so we have a special tour guide just for our visit to Bethlehem. We go through all this for one reason only: to visit the Church of the Nativity, the oldest and most significant church the Holy Land, because it is the birth place of Jesus Christ.
Entering the church is no easy task. If you look above, you can see the height of the original doorway in the stone. Over the centuries, it has been made smaller twice. Even at my 5’3” height, I had to bend over considerably to get under that doorway. Everybody stoops to enter, a constant reminder for us to be humble before God.
Entering into the sanctuary, we are all dazzled by a splendor of real gold and silver, the twinkling crystal chandeliers, and the ornaments decorating the altar before the hand painted iconostasis wall of religious saints and Bible scenes.
The entire altar twinkled like a decorated like a Russian jewel box, like a fabregé egg, like a glittering Christmas tree.
Beneath the altar is the underground space where Jesus was born. It is accessed by two doors on either the left or right side. One door for going down, the other door for coming up. It’s a one person at a time kind of door on both sides.
So everybody who wants to see the birthplace of a Jesus is going to have to fit through this door. Remember the Bible verse where Jesus said it’s harder for a rich man to enter heaven than a camel to go through an eye of a needle? That’s what came to mind when I saw the crowd and how we were all going to have to fit through this door.
We finally made it to the Grotto of the Nativity to see the exact spot of the birthplace of Jesus. The 14 point silver star is set into the marble floor with the Latin inscription which says “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.” It is surrounded by 15 silver lamps representing the three Christian communities in Bethlehem: six belong to the Greek Orthodox, four to the Catholics, and five to the Armenian Apostolic.
A few feet away, this golden fireplace screen which marks the exact spot where the Virgin Mary lay the infant Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger.
My friends, this is the true story of Christmas, and how wonderful at this time of year that I am here to be able to share this with you. I have said prayers for you here. It’s a chance to reflect on love and forgiveness, sharing peace on earth to all. Here’s wishing you all a very Merry Christmas holiday season…from Bethelem!