During the Advent and Christmas seasons, I remember traveling to the holy lands, walking down the streets of Bethlehem, and climbing over the hills in the Shepherd's Field. In 2020, I wrote a faith column about my holy land trip; however, I failed to include the writing on my blog.
After visiting the holy lands, I hear the Christmas story and listen to carols from a new perspective. If you have not traveled to the holy lands yet, may the reflection below lead you to understand the holy story in a new way and perhaps, lead you to visit the holy lands one day too.
Blessings, Rev. April H. Cranford
In January of 2019, my husband Reed and I stayed two nights in the small town of Bethlehem, a town that celebrates three Christmases.
In Manger Square on Dec. 25, the Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christ’s birth followed by the Greek, Syrian, and other Orthodox Christians on Jan. 7, and, lastly, the Armenian Christians hold celebrations on Jan. 19.
We entered Bethlehem through a check point — a humble beginning — as we left Israel behind and set foot in the upper West Bank of Palestine. This quaint little hilly town, sung in carols, conveyed a different truth in reality as we witnessed a concrete wall dividing the haves from the have-nots.
One of our tour guides in the holy lands was Elias Nawawieh (www.eliastours.com). Elias shared with me the story of his humble beginnings in his hometown of Bethlehem. He wrote,
It is important when we sing ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem’ that we remember who still lives there: faithful Christians who have been there since Jesus’s time. When our first son was born in the United States, I asked my mom about my birth story and what she remembers. She told me [that] when she gave birth to me in Bethlehem, I was surrounded by feral cats and she had to chase them away.
On that first night in Bethlehem, I nestled in my bed away from home and wondered if Mary’s prayers were similar to mine that besought a silent and holy night filled with peace for this little town of many hills.
The next day, we visited the Church of the Nativity. We entered the sacred space below the alter, traditionally known as the place of Christ’s birth. A fourteen-pointed star marked the holy space which was symbolic of the three sets of 14 generations represented in Jesus’s genealogy. In Matthew chapter 1, we read about the 14 generations from Abraham to David, the 14 generations from David until the Babylonian exile, and the 14 generations from the exile until Christ’s birth. Near the 14-pointed star, lit only by candles, our tour group crowded together and sang the first verse of “Silent Night.”
Later that day, we traveled to the Shepherd’s Field, the traditional location of the angel’s visit to the shepherds. We sat on wooden benches in the chapel and sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I had assumed the shepherds had to travel a great distance to witness the birth of the Messiah, but the journey was only a few miles. Sitting in the chapel that day, I realized the importance of the journey was not determined by the miles but was determined by the message. The shepherds left their pasture to discover the Good Shepherd, born that night on a hillside not too far away.
Once one has visited the holy lands, people will often ask them if they experienced a holy moment while walking in the footsteps of Jesus. We visited many sites and toured many churches that led us through the pages of scripture. Although the buildings were impressive, Mother Nature spoke louder. I felt God’s presence while riding in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and while walking along the streets of Bethlehem as snow began to fall. We might assume Bethlehem has a continuous blanket of snow upon the ground similar to the drawings on our Christmas cards; however, this was the first snow the residents had seen in years. Snow has a way of bringing people outside, especially children. Walking outside that evening, we heard two young boys laughing and playing in the street. The laughter made this night not so silent, but holy and free. Children in the street and an infant in a manger can move us past the reality of the injustices of our world and set our feet on holy ground.
Throughout scripture, we read about the small town of Bethlehem. One of my favorite stories is of Ruth, a widow. Her commitment to care for her mother-in-law, Naomi, took her to a new land to experience a new people and a new God. Once settled in Bethlehem, she sought provisions for her family by means of gleaning a field and seeking another husband. Through humble beginnings in Bethlehem, Ruth, later known as King David’s grandmother, became part of the holy story.
Turning to the gospel of Luke, we hear of another woman, Mary, who traveled to Bethlehem with her family. Once Mary and Joseph arrived in this small town, they sought provisions for rest and for a location where Mary could deliver her first-born son. Through humble beginnings in Bethlehem, Mary, the mother of Christ, became part of the holy story.
Ruth, Mary, and Jesus experienced humble beginnings in Bethlehem. A widow gleaned in the field. A teenager gave birth to a holy mystery. A king was placed in a manger. Their beginnings revealed the wisdom and ways of God’s glorious kingdom. As we celebrate Christ's birth, may we walk with humble steps and become part of the holy story too.