Twenty years ago, Miriam and I were gifted with a trip to Israel. It was and is memorable for me. Bustling markets with haggling merchants. The whiplash of driving from the high-rises of Tel Aviv to camels and bedouins in the desert. Bobbing by moonlight in the Dead Sea. Ascending Masada. It’s a journey you may have made and one I wish everyone could.
As you would expect, the pinnacle places of our trip were those that felt the footprints of Jesus. Nazareth where He took His first steps. The tranquil Jordon where He was baptized. The Sea of Galilee upon which He walked. Jerusalem with the Via Dolorosa. A Garden Tomb, much like the one He exited with triumphant strides.
The trip occurred a few weeks before Christmas. Quite naturally Bethlehem was on my mind as well as our itinerary. We bussed from Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity first thing in the morning. We were cautioned by our tour guide that there was a disturbance the night before. The Church parking lot was strewn with rocks used as projectiles. It meant that our exploration of Bethlehem would be confined and brief. But nothing would spoil our anticipation.
The Church is a collection of chapels designated and maintained by various expressions of Christianity. It all hovers above the Grotto, the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth. You descend a series of narrow stone stairways, navigate through dimly lit halls and jostle with monks and tourists. On the ground, in a small alcove with a silver star embedded in the floor, lies the place where a manger once was. The crowd was large, so our time was short. After singing a carol, we retraced the maze back to our bus and I tried to unpack my feelings during the drive.
It felt like it was all too much. Complexity constructed upon simplicity. The convoluted, even confusing structure. The elaborate customs of song, prayer and incense. The walls wrapped with ornamental layers meant to enhance, but appearing like clutter. The spot itself was plain. Everything added to it, seemed like exaggerated efforts to make it special. I wished it was different and I felt convicted.
What I saw in the church is what I see all around me. We take the modesty of the Nativity and try to enlarge it with our efforts. We have traditions, pageants, customs, expectations, obligations and expenses. We have constructed so much as essential for the season, it’s hard to see what it’s all about. I applaud the intent to glorify God’s grace and gift, but often our celebrations convey our own reflections. The Grotto is not special because of the Church. It’s the other way around. Is there a way to deconstruct what we’ve made? God may be doing that for us this year.
This year, your Christmas may be simpler. There may be less. Fewer guests. Smaller events. Shorter trips. A leaner party. But God does not take. He gives. If the embellished Church was not there, the Grotto remains. Jesus has come. That is enough. Receive it.