For many years, as Christmas approached, when I taught my classes, I would put a list of twenty five things on the board which were part of our Christmas festivities. These included everything from nuts and cookies to unwrapping presents, from parties to brightly lit trees, from Christmas movies to stockings filled by Santa. I would then ask them to narrow down the list to the top fifteen. What could they give up if the need demanded it? We would vote as a class and reduce the elements of Christmas one by one. “Take five more things off the list,” I would ask. Once again, more painfully now, the list was pared to the ten most important necessities. From ten we cut to five and finally to just three. Year after year, it never failed; I would always get the same three critical aspects of our Christmas celebration. What were they? Being with family and friends! The reading of the Christmas story in Luke Two! And singing Christmas carols heralding the birth of Mary’s child in Bethlehem!
I never thought when I was young that I would ever go to Bethlehem and now I have been there more than twenty times. Yet Bethlehem never loses its power to move my soul. I do n
ot think I have ever been there without feeling the tears trying to get out as part of the joy this city imparts. I used to visualize Bethlehem as it was depicted on a Christmas card someone sent to my mother when I was just a little boy. I can still see the wise men sitting with dignity and reverence on their camels on a hill gazing downward to the plain below where Bethlehem was lit by a single ray of light streaming from the star overhead. Had I not sung many times, “Far, far away on Judea’s plains, shepherds of old heard the joyous strain?” So I was much surprised to discover on my first visit to the Holy Land that the town is not on a plain but on the top of a hill with Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity dominating the horizon. I thought how appropriate this was. We should always look up to Bethlehem. The square and church are usually packed with pilgrims from all over the world come to see where the miracle of love was given to us all. We bend low to pass through the tiny narrow door that allows entrance and visit the traditional grotto where Christians from the earliest centuries believe Jesus was born. But the soul of Bethlehem does not touch me deeply until we gather in the cloister of St Catharine’s Church next door to read the moving words of Luke, certainly obtained from the memories of Mary who would have told him. Then we sing! The roses are usually blooming in the little gardens and the sky overhead creates a setting inviting the spirit of our Savior. I cannot take you all to Bethlehem this Christmas day, but I hope to bring to you the spirit that overflows the small cloister where we gather. In spite of all the changes this hilltop town has seen over two thousand years, “something abides to consecrate ground for the vision place of souls,” as one man said.”
Bethlehem is a shepherd boy softly singing a psalm on the hillside a thousand years before Jesus was born: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.…Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…my cup runneth over.”
Bethlehem is a mother singing a lullaby. “All mine in your loveliness Baby all mine; all mine in your holiness Baby divine. Sing on herald angels in chorus sublime; sing on and adore, for tonight you are mine.”
“Raise, Raise a song on high, the virgin sings a lullaby. Joy, joy for Christ is born, the babe the son of Mary.”
Bethlehem is a sleeping baby. “What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping. Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping.”
“Silent night, Holy night, Son of God loves pure light. Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”
Bethlehem is hope of life never ending. “Mild he lays his glory by; born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the new born king.
Bethlehem is the hope of earth’s fulfillment. “For lo the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old, when with the ever circling years, shall come the time foretold. When the new heaven and earth shall own, the Prince of Peace their king, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.”
Bethlehem is an invitation to love. “Truly he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother and in his name all oppression shall cease.
Bethlehem is the light of a star. “The heavenly star its rays afar on every land is throwing and shall not cease till holy peace in all the earth is growing.”
Bethlehem is a child’s prayer. “Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, close by me forever, and love me I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.”
Bethlehem is the coming of our friend. “The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger, in all our trials born to be our friend. He knows our needs; to our weakness is no stranger.”
Bethlehem is the song of angels. “Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation. Sing all ye citizens of heaven above.”
“Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies, with the angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem. Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the new born king.”
Bethlehem is the clear triumphant voice of rejoicing. “Lord with the angels we too would rejoice. Help us to sing with the heart and voice, Glory to God, Glory to God, Glory to God in the highest.”
“And still is found the world around, the old and hallowed story. And still is sung in every tongue the angel’s song of glory. Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna to his name.”
Bethlehem is an invitation. “Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant o come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the king of angels. O come let us adore him, o come let us adore him, o come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”
“Bethlehem is the Savior in our lives. “O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie…. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight…. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.”
I recall one year reading the Christmas story in the cloister and when finishing all the bells of Bethlehem began to ring. It was a never to be forgotten moment. As we
drove through the security wall covered with its graffiti of wounded doves and masked faces, the words of Longfellow’s carol awoke in my mind and hope was born for:
Bethlehem is the bright ringing of church bells. “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead nor doth he sleep, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth good will toward men.”
May all of you have the most joyous of Christmas seasons and may the spirit of Bethlehem abide in your hearts all the year round.