In the Advent season, Christians anticipate celebrating an event that unfolded thousands of years ago in the seemingly inconsequential remote Palestinian town of Bethlehem. Today, the local economy rests on pilgrims and tourists, especially during the Advent season. So you can imagine the effects of the COVID shut down. After two years of travel restrictions and an unusually empty Manger Square during the last two Christmas seasons, there is optimism that business is bouncing back in Bethlehem. The pandemic hit hard, its economy that had been sustained by Christian pilgrims and tourists from around the globe, decimated. For two difficult years residents could barely provide for their families. Restaurants were empty, shops were struggling, and the cobblestone streets were silent except last year even without the income from tourists, the locals decided that although no outsiders could come and it was costly, they would celebrate with lights and pageants and the traditional fireworks. After all, they believed that Advent and the nativity was worth celebrating even if it was only celebrated with family.
Before COVID-19 changed the world, I had the privilege of traveling to Palestine with groups from the Presbyterian denomination. We stayed in a beautiful-Lutheran owned guest house and visited the Holy Sites mentioned in our New Testament story. Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum and Jericho were a part of our itinerary. But seeing the land between Nazareth and Bethlehem made me wonder at the difficulty of Mary traveling over the rough terrain on the back of donkey so close to her due date. Couldn’t God come up with a better plan?
Certainly there should have been census exceptions in cases like this or maybe mail-in options for a woman whose baby’s birth was imminent? Interestingly, 700 years before that time prophets foretold of the coming Messiah and even named the remote and insignificant town. Micah 5:2 But you Bethlehem Ephratah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler of Israel whose origins are from old, from ancient times.
I mean honestly, it would kind of be like declaring that Ostrander, Ohio, the closest town to our family farm, was the chosen place. God, it seems, is always doing the impossible using unlikely people and surprising circumstances. Transforming the most forgotten and ordinary to fulfill divine plans. Yes, little town of Bethlehem proclaim the Holy birth!
During our tour of the crowded Church of the Nativity, we saw the incredibly ornate chapels that were owned and maintained by different Christian denominations and learned from tour guides that those same groups competed over which was most beautiful with fancy lights, stained glass, paintings and carved icons and brocade weavings and even over whose music could be heard. We waited to descend stone steps single file through the narrow passage to the simple cave that is believed to be the humble stable where Jesus was born over which the big Basilica was constructed.
Later, we were taken by van to the parking lot of the Bethlehem YMCA where we followed signs down a winding trail where few tourists traveled, to the area identified as the Shepherds Field. I don’t know how the rocky barren hillside could have sustained a flock of sheep, certainly it wasn’t anything like Ohio’s fertile farmland. I tried to picture that Holy Night with only light from the stars and maybe a small campfire when the sheep tenders were frightened by bright blinding lights and the angel chorus declaring the good news of the birth of the promised Savior. Our small group thought of that night so long ago on the rocky hillside that became the most Holy sanctuary!
The event that we celebrate across the globe at Christmas, every detail known before time began, includes simple people like us in the greater Delaware area and far beyond. I think God invites us to get down to the basics, we all may need to strip away the gloss and glitter and reflect on that simple, humble and yet life-changing event in history and rediscover that underneath it all is the God of grace and mercy who from the cradle to the cross lived to love. And God expressed that love in the best story ever! Yes, Bethlehem, that story is worth celebrating in every way possible! Merry Christmas to all!