Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Twice I have visited Bethlehem, and three times I have walked from the guest house where I stayed and stooped to enter the dusty interior of the Church of the Nativity. Each time I descended the steps to one side of a gaudy Greek Orthodox altar to the traditional site of Jesus birth.
Neither the church nor the site, often filled with pilgrims armed with cameras, was of much inspiration. A star on the floor marks the spot where he was born. You can reach into the hole at the middle of the star and feel the stone or soul beneath. Dozens of orthodox lanterns cast grimy light across the stone cave. Packed with pilgrims snapping photos, the scene feels cheap and tacky, a dime-store rip off.
Only once did the spot inspire devotion in me and that was long after the tourists left and I returned to pray, sitting on a rock shelf to the side of the holy spot, which I did not find holy at all. I prayed in this birthplace for my daughter whose first pregnancy was in trouble. I prayed for her child to wait his time and be born healthy. My prayers were answered. Ben’s wit and joy never fail to delight me.
It is this which has made this tourist site holy for me, those prayers, that boy and the shine in his mother’s eyes.
But I honestly could not see Mary here, cradling her child. Maybe there were too many people. Maybe the scene was not simple enough. Maybe it was the din of a dozen languages echoing off the stone walls. Maybe if someone had scattered some straw and sheep manure around it would have felt more real.
Maybe if we all could have been quiet for a moment and realized this is the spot where a human soul filled with the wonder of God entered our world and changed everything.
Maybe then I would have felt what I wanted to feel and praised God for the wonder of becoming flesh.
More real to me is the tired Mexican mother sitting on a bench at the shopping mall, cradling her child, nursing him. It is there that I see Mary and Jesus in my world. I see God becoming flesh in a way real and near to me, and not just near … but in me as I feel compassion for her in her weariness and joy in the tenderness of the moment.
For God takes flesh in every human soul, and each time we see the compassion of such holy tenderness we witness again the incarnation of God in our midst … and feel it in our souls.
Every year at Christmas the same vision appears in my imagination. I see Mary and Jesus in the old barn on the farm, huddled among the stanchions where dad and grandpa milked the cows.
I see them there in the first world I inhabited in my childhood. They are real there, making this common place a holy place, my Bethlehem, where God puts on flesh so I can see and feel the joy of his nearness.
Seeing them there, I know … Bethlehem is everywhere.
Pr. David L. Miller