Remembering Bethlehem

December 24, 2012

I blushed, then smiled, to have stumbled onto Christmas in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I had entered merely as a Sunday tourist when I heard the Roman Catholic congregation in the left chapel celebrating the twelfth day of Christmas. In the worship space straight ahead, the little Armenian Orthodox congregation was observing their Christmas Day. Clumsy tourism aside, I was moved to arrive on this day where Christians have celebrated Christmas in a church on this site for 1700 years.

What I discovered down in the Grotto of the Nativity, the stable-cave below the church, at first rattled my Quaker sensibilities. But take away the abundant candles, the lamps, the decorative hangings, and the marble floor with its 14-point silver star marking the very spot of Jesus’ birth, the cave seemed pretty plain. As a German family knelt a few steps away at the Chapel of the Manger and sang “Stille Nacht,” I thought, “If not here, probably like here.” Hidden, barren. Who would even notice? It’s hard to imagine still that shepherds would hurry to this place and beam with hopes of peace and joy when they discovered a newborn baby.

Cards and songs aside, the Bethlehem they hurried to was not serene and still. It was bustling and bursting at the seams, full of visitors grumbling at the census and Caesar’s taxes. The soldiers guaranteeing the “peace of Rome” controlled the crowds and counted heads. They had compelled many Josephs and maybe other too-pregnant Marys to return to their ancestral home to get on the tax rolls, whether or not they knew a cousin with a sleeper sofa.

Occupiers and rebels have often fought over this place. Bethlehem’s first Church of the Nativity was burned down in a rebellion after 200 years, and the one now standing has an odd, centuries-old entrance first designed to keep Ottoman horsemen out of the church. Even today concrete walls, fences, and trenches surround and squeeze this little town whose “peace” the occupying armies guarantee with tanks, F-16 fighter jets, and Apache helicopters.

Yet it is in bloody, troubled, turbulent Bethlehem that God acts, that God announces joy and peace. Bethlehem native and local Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb writes:

“Christians have to take Christmas in Bethlehem seriously, because on that holy night and in this very place, God chose to be very concrete, to take flesh, and to take our world very seriously. We Christians [in Bethlehem] are unafraid to face the brutal reality around us because we believe in a power mightier than walls and put our faith in a peace that exceeds all human understanding.” (Bethlehem Besieged, pp. 144-145)

Since I know that our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem steadily suffer violence and oppression, Raheb’s bold words encourage me. So do George Fox’ words to Friends enduring harassment and imprisonment: “Sing and rejoice, ye children of the Day and of the Light; for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt. … the Lamb shall have victory over them all.” (Epistle 227)

Yet some days it’s hard to sustain hope when the rising tide of evil crashes in and is even blessed in God’s name. People of faith have long, and rightly, struggled over this. In such times the Bible’s complaint psalms give us voice: “Why? How long? When will you do something, God?” But these psalms, too, even in the darkest times, remind us that God does act, that God will prevail.

In Bethlehem, with its obscurity and with its cast of unlikely heroes, God acted decisively. It surprised the shepherds; it scared Herod. It brings us hope, a hope in which to anchor, a hope in which to act. As Raheb points out, it is not enough to be “joyful peace talkers rather than blessed peacemakers.” The baby born in Bethlehem calls us all to live joyfully and boldly in the power of the Lord that is over all.

[This essay was first published in Quaker Life magazine and is now collected in Stepping in the Light: Life in Joy and Power, available at Friends United Press.]

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