Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

AfterGlow: In Bethlehem (Nov-Dec 2000)

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by Phillip Morrison
November – December, 2000

Just a few days before Christmas a year ago, Mary Margaret and I were in Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born. That Bethlehem visit moved us much more deeply than our previous trip more than three decades ago. Perhaps it was just the oppressive heat of a Judean summer … or our relative youth and inexperience … or the crass commercialism that hides the holiness of many speical places … or anxiety about small children left behind with grandparents.

In my case, I think the visit to Behlehem was not more impressive because of the cynical attitude I took with me. In those days, “progressive” churches were those which dared to sing Joy to the World at Christmas and Up From the Grave at Easter. I was a young preacher who had swallowed and regurgitated the “Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday, and even if it is, we’re supposed to celebrate his death, burial, and resurrection rather than his birth” doctrine.

In my determination to avoid celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday, I joined those who made it a secular holiday. We could have Christmas trees but not nativity scenes. Christmas cards with Santa Claus and reindeer were all right, but those with mangers and wise men were forbidden. We could load up on the toys but not the joys of the season.

At some point I made an astounding discovery: I couldn’t preach the lessons of Jesus’ life, and I couldn’t honor his death, burial, and resurrection without giving some attention to how he got here! I suppose God could have come to earth in some form other than human by some means other than birth, but the gospel wouldn’t be the same.

Jesus is God incarnate, God enfleshed. From the miracle of his birth to the perfection of his life to the wonder of his sacrifice, Jesus is – every step of the way the Word that was God and became man. He became like us so we can become like him.

Like a pendulum swinging to the opposite extreme, I am now a Christmas fanatic. The most treasured decoration in our house is no longer the tree … nor the heirloom pickle ornament handed on to a fourth generation … but the nativity scene our children gave us. Carved of olive wood, the figures of a young Mary, a more mature Joseph, shepherds, animals – all pay homage to the babe in the manger – and so do we.

I hoped the skies would be dark and cloudless when we were in Bethlehem, because the stars would then be shining in countless number and indescribable brightness. Unfortunately we were there in the daytime, but I imagined standing in Shepherds’ Field, gazing at the stars, looking for The Star, not expecting to see it but never being able to forget it. Because He was born there, Bethlehem is not just another dusty town, still torn by political and religious strife. It is a special, sacred place chosen as The Place where God chose to come among us.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight.
Wineskins Magazine

Phillip Morrison

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