Christmas Day 2020
In Bethlehem ‘X’ really does mark the spot, the spot where it is believed that Jesus was born. Almost three decades ago I visited that spot, in the Church of the Nativity. The writer Annie Dillard describes the site of the stable thus:
“One of the queerest places on earth – I hope- is the patch of planet where, according to tradition, a cave once stabled animals, and where Mary gave birth to a son whose later preaching – scholars of every stripe agree, with varying enthusiasm – caused the occupying Romans to crucify him. Generations of Christians have churched over the traditional Bethlehem spot to the highest degree. Centuries of additions have made the architecture peculiar, but no one can see the church anyway, because many monasteries clamp onto it in clusters like barnacles.”
From ‘Bethlehem’ P.217 in ‘Watch for the light.’
The Church of the Nativity was nothing like I imagined it would be like. In fact, if I am truthful, much of the Holy Land was too ‘Disney’ for me and I found myself often unmoved by major pilgrimage sites and having moving experiences in unexpected, rather mundane places. The Church of the Nativity left me particularly cold especially when the clergy I was travelling with started to sing; ‘Away in a manger’ badly. I just had to get out of the church building and I spent time just sitting in Manger Square watching ordinary people walk by.
Over the years I have reflected on my reaction to the Holy Land and I have also discovered that I am not alone in my feelings and probably no different to some of the pilgrims who have visited over the last two millennia. For a start, where was Jesus born?
Some theologians say it probably was not Bethlehem but Nazareth. Bethlehem, however, fitted the ancient prophesies better. Was he born in a stable or an inn or a cave? All three places are possible and just as likely, as many artists and poets have interpreted. Look at your Christmas Cards when you get home – what does Jesus’ birth place look like? In most paintings it will be a dilapidated venue, a falling down stable or stone building. Why? Because it is meant to represent the old ways passing away and a new beginning for humankind. It represents the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New.
Whatever happened 2000 years ago we Christians believe that Christianity began with the birth of Jesus, the long promised Christ, the Messiah. His birth was the time when God emptied himself into humankind. God became human. For me the fourteen point star on the floor of the crypt chapel in the Church of the Nativity that supposedly marks the place of Jesus birth or God’s incarnation is unimportant. What to me is important is the belief that God became as we are – fully human.
God did not need to become human but he chose to do so, so that we the creation could understand him better and he could prove to us just how much we are loved by him. Loved so much that he was prepared to die for us. If you have ever felt that you would give your life to save the life of a loved one, you’ll have some concept of what this unbounded love God offers us is like.
A love so powerful that it is life and creation changing. Today’s celebration of Jesus’ birth is all about love, earth shattering, all powerful, hopeful love. This for me is the importance of Christmas and it was in the Holy Land that I realised that I did not need a specific place to give thanks for Jesus’ birth. I can give thanks for his incarnation anywhere because his birth is not time limited or place specific. The incarnation is a universal, eternal event and event like the resurrection that is never ending.
Jesus’ birth was a gentle, almost unnoticed event at the time, give or take a few shepherds and magi (who may or may not have actually pitched up) depending on which Gospel account you read. HOWEVER Jesus’ birth was actually just as explosive as his later resurrection!
Jesus birth is frankly quite amazing. His birth has changed lives and cultures for over two millennia and this year in particular we need to be reminded of that fact and the hope for change that it brings. Sadly, however, Christ’s incarnation has been used by some in the past to cause trouble and strife but that is humanity’s doing NOT God’s. God did not become human in order to start a war or to cause division or even to set up a religion as Dillard says:
“I have never read any theologian who claims God is particularly interested in religion anyway.”
God became human to save us from ourselves.To love us both as God and as a human being too. Knowing that we are loved and that that love is unconditional and always there should be something that comforts us and gives us hope in the dark times and inspires us and challenges in the good times.
Human love can be fickle – we all know that - but God’s love is never fickle or changing and this is what Christmas says to us. Jesus is the epitome of pure, unadulterated, unbounded and eternal love. Love for you, love for them, love for us, love for me, love for everyone and anyone regardless. No one is beyond God’s love. Jesus is for all of us not just a selected few or chosen ones. Even if this love is rejected it is still continually offered – this is one brilliant and everlasting Christmas gift.
And how was this love manifested?
In a helpless babe, an infant needing love and care himself, that’s God all over. Unpredictable, constantly challenging our perceptions and taking us by surprise and in doing so showing us something wonderful.
Christmas is amazing, celebrate it with great joy and hope this year as you have always done; give thanks to God for Jesus and above all try to love others as God loves you. Loving each other is important as this past year has shown us, we all need each other to help us cope in the difficult times. Be inspired by Christ’s birth this year to love and receive love when its offered; to give and receive the helping hand and too surround everyone with your prayers for a better year to come.