Where It All Began

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

Rector Phillips Brooks (1835-1903) of Philadelphia, wrote the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”following a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He was inspired by the view of Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at night and wrote the words and his organist, Lewis Redner (1831-1908), for the church children’s choir.

Well since Brooks visited Bethlehem in 1865 things have changed.

It’s not quite as peaceful as it seemed to Brooks, especially since the first thing you see entering Bethlehem is the ugly Israeli Wall erected to keep suicide bombers from Bethlehem out of Israel.

Bethlehem, now officially the capital of the Bethlehem Governorate of the Palestinian National Authority, is honestly a rather crummy [next to Jerusalem] little town of around 30,000 about 40% of whom are Christian and most of the rest Muslim. Here’s downtown Bethlehem today . . .

Manger Square is the center of tourism, where all the action takes place, and the focus of world attention on Christmas Eve.

Traditionally on Christmas Eve Manger Square in Bethlehem comes alive with security forces and tourists from all over the world who want to be here to celebrate what probably wasn’t exactly the actual night of Jesus’ birth. We know that December on the hills outside of Bethlehem can be cold and windy and it is unlikely that “shepherds would be in the fields keeping watch over their sheep by night” in the midst of winter. More likely they would be hunkered down in a cave or barn in town to keep warm. Because the Romans celebrated their pagan festival of Saturnalia on December 25th, the early church, burdened by persecution, decided that when the Romans were all drunk and whooping and hollering, it would be a good time to hold their celebration of the Savior’s birth, and nobody would notice. And so it came about that the western Christian church celebrates the birth of Christ on December 25th.

The sprawling Church of the Nativity covers the tiny cave where tradition says Jesus, the Christ was born. “tradition” might be the most common English word on the tourist route in Israel and sometimes it amounts to little more that tourist hype. The older the tradition the more credulence it has, so because already in 150 AD or so this cave was being attested to by none other than the early Christian apologist – an apologist not being someone who made an apology for Christianity, but someone who explained it to non-Christians – Justin Martyr who lived 100-165 AD. this may actually be the place of Christ’s birth. This site is also a holy site for Muslims who see Jesus as one of the prophets. It is continually being referred to as the birthplace of Christ by many disparate ancient writers.

The first basilica on this site was begun by Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine I in 327 AD. That structure was burnt down in the Samaritan Revolt of 529. The current basilica was rebuilt in its present form in 565 by the Emperor Justinian I. There are two churches here side by side: the older Greek Orthodox church, and a newer Roman Catholic church. The story is that when the Persians invaded their commander was so moved by the depiction inside the original church of the Three Wise Men wearing Persian clothing that he spared the building. The Crusaders made additions to the building and through the years the compound has expanded until today it covers 12,000 square meters making it possible for Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic traditions to share administration of the church and have monastic communities in the facility.

And this is it, after waiting in line an hour, and crushing in with tourists and pilgrims from all over the world, this is . . . supposedly . . . the spot where “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, glory as of the Only Begotten Son of God.”

If the place doesn’t inspire you, as it won’t, the EVENT can change your life!

As I spend this Christmas at sea, to my wife and  daughter Rebecca in Palmira, my brother in an assisted living home in Washington, and my daughter Noelle, her husband George and my two fantastic grandsons in Seattle, and to you, whoever you are, whatever you believe or don’t believe and wherever you happen to be in the world, I wish you a very blessed Christmas!