I have the luxury of having some memories of Bethlehem. It's been nigh on ten years since I've been there, but the impact that the city made on me will, I genuinely hope, last forever. It sure seems like one of those memories that has the power to transcend general forgetfulness, or for that matter, transcend the brutality of Alzheimer's. I know that’s probably not true, but it still makes me feel better.
I was in Israel at Christmastime in the mid-nineties – ‘93 or ‘94, I forget which. I went with the youth choir from church. Imagine that – me as part of a singing group! We spent the better part of two weeks touring the country, seeing everything from Jericho to Golgotha to the Dead Sea. Specific memories still exist is my brain about a lot of the trip – Masada made a huge impact on me, as did the Wailing Wall. Taking Communion outside the Garden Tomb . . .
I remember small things too: the hotel rooms, the small children selling bubble gum, the bottles of Coke for 4 shekels. I remember the soldiers everywhere, with their assault rifles that they would let you hold if you asked.
Mostly, I remember how everything was so important. Everything we saw, everything we did, everything we experienced was straight out of the Bible – lifted directly from the text. And if I had a wish, it would be that I could experience all of those things again, but with the maturity that I have now instead of the immaturity I had then.
One of my clearest memories from the trip was this: it was Christmas Eve, and we had just finished singing in Manger Square in Bethlehem. I remember the sheer amount of people crammed into the Square that night – people from all over the world at a truly holy place, at a truly holy time. The excitement of the moment was overwhelming – it was like I imagine Times Square on New Year’s Eve to be, only the people that night had a commonality over and above a silly ball dropping.
After the singing was done, we loaded onto our tour buses to go back to the hotel. We drove out of Bethlehem and into the country – sparse, empty fields everywhere. We were exhausted physically, emotionally, spiritually, you name it. Then, for no apparent reason, our buses pulled over onto the side of the road and stopped in the middle of nowhere. We all got out and walked into the field. Our pastor had us sit down on the ground and he began to read:
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
Who knows if the field we were sitting in was that field? What matters is that the Christmas story became completely real to me that night, on the cold ground outside Bethlehem. The images in my mind weren’t lifted from illustrations in a children’s bible anymore. All of sudden, all of the passion plays, all of the Jesus films I had seen became remarkably fake. I had seen it for myself, touched it for myself.
Today’s news that the Israelis have turned Bethlehem over to the Palestinians really caused all of this to come flooding back at me. I wasn’t really ready for it. I am struck with the sadness that the city has lost some of its holiness. Maybe they will keep the sacred places there, maybe they won’t, but either way it can never be the same.
there. I said it.|