Every December our collective thoughts turn to the little town of Bethlehem. We sing about it, read about it, and have a picture of it in our minds.
But what was the Bethlehem of 2000 years ago really like?
What is it like today?
Sometimes I imagine a light dusting of new fallen snow, and soft candlelight from the shepherds lamps. Sometimes it is rough-hewn desert with only the occasional palm tree to be found.
In my imagination, I have been to this Bethlehem many times, but a few years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the actual city of Bethlehem. To look upon the place Jesus was born, the hallowed spot where history was forever altered so many centuries ago, is an experience beyond words.
Bethlehem was not the quiet, serene place I had envisioned; no stable filled with hay and no shepherds in the fields nearby. It was not the Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago. Yet there remains a unique and distinct feel to Bethlehem. Having seen centuries of shifting politics and shifting sands, a special sense of holiness still lingers in the air simply because of the history of the place, and the almost tangible remembrance of those who have spent moments of their lives here.
This December I’d like to share some of the sights of Bethlehem with you. It truly is an extraordinary place for so many reasons. Today, I’ll start with the city itself.
Bethlehem was the home of Ruth and Boaz, the birthplace of King Saul and King David, the birthplace of Jesus the Messiah, and it’s significance cannot be underestimated. However, the political landscape of Bethlehem today is tricky.
Atop the building in the following picture flies the Palestinian flag. Palestine is not a nation, and the area ultimately falls under Israeli jurisdiction. However, the day-to-day affairs of Bethlehem are governed by the Palestinian authority, and as such our Jewish guide did not enter the area, but handed us over to a Arab Christian guide. This is just one example of the complex politics of the area. That said, at no point in Israel did I ever feel ‘unsafe’. In fact, I felt as safe there as I ever have anywhere.
Across the street is the Bethlehem Peace Center. And from the peace center hangs a large portrait of Mahmoud Abbas, the current leader of the Palestinian government. No offense to Mr. Abbas, but it was a reminder to me that this contested land has had many rulers: the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans the British and the Jordanians are just a few. I was reminded that the kingdoms of this world are temporary, and will someday give way to the Kingdom of our God, and the only true peace we will ever find comes from the Prince of Peace, born just a few yards away from this spot so many years ago.
There is no idyllic stable as we may expect, but rather the Church of the Nativity, which is built upon the site Jesus was born. The exterior of the church is unassuming, which is fitting considering the humble birth of the Prince of Peace whom it honors. The entryway requires bending down, some say in order to enter the church in humility before the King who was born in that place so many centuries ago.
In part two we will head inside the church itself and I’ll tell a little bit about my experience there.