Busy is an understatement for pastors who are trying to balance Advent activities, extra services, family holiday gatherings, pastoral care, as well as keep up with the regular church administrative duties. My mind and heart was focused on our middle son — two years ago he, his wife, and their newborn baby were Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus — who was diagnosed with cancer this fall and had hours of chemotherapy scheduled last week. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the obligations and responsibilities that we lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas.
The week before the very late Thanksgiving date, I traveled with a small group of pastors and mission leaders to engage with Palestinian Christians. We had the opportunity to join in Sunday morning worship at the Christmas Church in Bethlehem, a service offered in three languages.
In the early afternoon, a short distance away, we visited the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square, the oldest site of continuous worship in Christianity. There we found ourselves nearly overwhelmed by the lines of people who waited to enter the magnificent basilica constructed over the believed sight of the birth of Jesus. Work was being done to clean and shine the ornate icons, priceless art, and beautiful tiled floors and detailed wood carvings to prepare for the busiest season of the year.
Deep in the basement. down curved stone steps, pilgrim tourists could be seen kneeling in reverence before a stable cave that once housed animals that were fed in a rough cut manger that centuries ago cradled a new born baby. I found myself in my mind’s eye trying to erase the tour groups, information signs, and guide ropes as well as the all the religious additions. I imagined what it might have been like on that first Christmas when a young pregnant girl and her child’s adoptive father arranged a makeshift birthing room amongst the stable animals. I could see a freshly born baby wrapped tightly in what might have been the mother’s scarf or shawl.
I think that all on our team agreed that later that day when our driver pulled into the parking lot of the East Jerusalem YMCA and we followed a path to an area overlooking a hillside where shepherds took their flocks to graze, it was easy to envision “shepherds abiding and keeping watch over their flocks by night.”
Our small group was the only one there, and we could imagine how startled they would have been by bright lights and the angel’s announcement in that remote area. We knew that those sheep tenders were dusty, isolated, and a rough sort of people. We entered a cave that was used to protect the vulnerable sheep and learned that shepherds slept stretched out across the entrance. We heard the words that would be declared in years to come by the baby grown into man. “I am the gate,” and it all made sense. In that remote location we sang familiar Christmas carols, and our hearts were full beyond spoken words.
So, last week when I wondered if I could “pull off” a Christmas Eve service and accomplish everything I needed to do for our family’s holiday celebration, God met me by reminding me of the true meaning of the season. Our simple but profound Christmas Eve service was held with church members of all ages and with residents at Willow Brook Assisted Living. The beautiful grand piano played by our Ohio Wesleyan piano performance student from China accompanied the singing. We were awed by the strong and beautiful voices of people, some from Memory Care units who remembered words from decades of singing the Christmas story in timeless carols. We were touched by the expressions of gratitude and inspired by the joy of children of all ages.
The love of God demonstrated in the gift of a tiny human baby a night long ago filled our hearts with hope and assurance that all was as it should be.
Rev. Ginny Teitt is pastor of Concord Presbyterian Church in Delaware.