How Far is it to Bethlehem?

Source: Flickr

Several years ago, a wild wind blew cold Arctic air on Christmas eve, yet the warmth in the dimly lit church grew, as we sang the usual repertoire of Christmas carols. The congregation seemed to be wrapped in  quiet nostalgia, while each song brought back memorable moments. All of December, the secular carols filled the air as shoppers dashed around in haste for that perfect gift.

Now it was different. That night, a melody that filled me was “How Far is it to Bethlehem?” This is a traditional English children’s carol for Christmas, with lyrics by Frances Alice Chesterton. As the female voices in our choir soulfully sang that song, I pictured Bethlehem, the little town where Jesus was born. It seemed so far away, yet the lyrics of the song said, “not very far.”

In my imagination, I walked back in time around a town bustling with activity, after all, people had come to register, because Caesar Augustus had ordered a census of the whole world. A couple from Nazareth, Joseph, and a heavily pregnant Mary had arrived in a place indifferent to their dilemma – there was no room in any inn. Doors opened slightly to allow raucous laughter and music to drift out, and then shut fast with a big bang.

Wearily they trudged on, their donkey equally exhausted from the weight he was carrying. Their search led them to a straw filled stable with oxen and sheep. The agony turned to ecstasy when Mary gave birth to an infant, the Savior of all, and tenderly bundled him in swaddling clothes. Angelic music floated down, while simple shepherds knelt in adoration of a mysterious baby surrounded by light. A sudden rush of air made the animals stir, and the tinkle of donkey bells sounded loud and clear.

Reality broke into my contemplation with a yearning to visit Bethlehem, and that I did, not once, but twice. In early December 2008, I found myself walking into a city on the central west bank of Palestine, approximately 10 km south of Jerusalem. Tourists were everywhere in a place known as Christmas city. I was pestered by people trying to sell me colorful shawls, and Christmas ornaments made of olive wood.

Dodging the young sellers, I eagerly moved to Manger Square, and into the Church where tradition has it that Jesus was born. Stooping down to venerate at that holy spot, I unfortunately could not linger, for people were patiently lined up to do likewise. It was at Shepherd’s Field where Mass was celebrated in a cave, that I cried with inner joy listening to a tenor voice sing “O holy night, the stars are brightly shining…” I had finally arrived.

Bethlehem, in Hebrew, means House of Bread. How appropriate that Jesus, the Bread of Life was born there. Reflecting on his first Christmas as a monk at the Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky, Thomas Merton said, “Christ always seeks the straw of the most desolate cribs to make his Bethlehem.” Merton had emptied himself that Advent, so that he was able to feel an “unworldly interior peace” found in Christ.

In a sense, all the world is a Bethlehem where the inns are too crowded to have room for Jesus. Caught up in the endless noise of traffic, and the rush for productivity and success, people are drunk with the pride of technological advancement, and have no time for the divine Infant.

It is so necessary to stop, shut out the noise, and listen in the silence. “True silence” said Catherine Doherty, “is always restful. Silence is a cradle. It was the cradle of the incarnation. There was a great and awesome silence when God was born. If we continue our inward journey, we too can become cradles for the child.”

Another Christmas eve is here, and draws me into deep reflection, “A child is born to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:5) I nod my head in agreement with Pope Francis who said, “God’s biggest surprise comes on Christmas eve: the Almighty is a little child.” He goes on to say, “It will truly be Christmas if, like Joseph, we make room for silence; if like Mary we say, “here I am” to God; if, like Jesus, we are close to those who are alone; if, like the shepherds, we leave our enclosures to be with Jesus. It will be Christmas if we find the light in the poor grotto in Bethlehem.”

In the discipline of the moment, I pray that we enter into God’s presence, whose name is Emmanuel, God-with-us. My Advent journey has brought me to Bethlehem, continuing to sing in childlike wonder, “…If we touch his tiny hand, will he awake?

Will he know we’ve come so far just for his sake?

Viola Athaide, a student of Theology, is actively involved in parish life, leading Bible courses, the Prayer Group, and the Ministry with Maturing Adults.

  • Sylvia Lee
    Posted at 09:11h, 23 December Reply

    Thank you, Viola for reflecting on some wonderful scenes of Christmas, especially your personal experience in Bethlehem.
    Hope I can be the shepherds, find the light and follow .. prepare to welcome Baby Jesus into my heart .. Bethlehem is not too far .. soon and very soon .. we are going to see the King.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 09:35h, 23 December Reply

    Thank you Biola!

  • Brian Tansey
    Posted at 10:11h, 23 December Reply

    thanks Athaide ; a beauty of a reflection

  • Maria Chrysant Susanto
    Posted at 13:13h, 23 December Reply

    Thanks for sharing your thought Viola.
    Have a blessed Christmas

  • rosa scarpino
    Posted at 16:17h, 23 December Reply

    What a beautiful story, it moved me to tears to think that we are too busy to make room in our hearts for the King of Kings, our Saviour.
    God bless you Viola e continue to bring Jesus to others,

  • Lillian M Phelan
    Posted at 00:02h, 24 December Reply very beautiful, your thoughts, your are truly inspired!

  • Sue Woollard
    Posted at 11:04h, 24 December Reply

    Thanks for this Viola.
    My sister Marie Therese has been part of Madonna House for at least 45 years and knew Catherine Doherty. She is in Roanoke in the USA.
    Lovely quote of hers.
    blessings to you and those you love this Christmas.

  • Lalita Figueredo
    Posted at 14:56h, 24 December Reply

    Viola, beautiful reflection on Baby Jesus and Christmas.

    Posted at 08:49h, 25 December Reply

    Thanks once again Viola. This sacred “house of bread” is everywhere and all around us. Bethlehem is in our midst and it is now our calling to be the living bread blessed, broken, and given to satisfy the hunger and quench the thirst around us, being the best Present (Gift) we can be this Christmas season and especially in “ordinary times”. Keep up the great work.

  • Edlyn de Souza
    Posted at 09:39h, 25 December Reply


  • Jacqui Hubbard
    Posted at 13:10h, 25 December Reply

    You always give us such a visual. You bring the Gospel to life. Thank you and Merry Christmas.

  • Fay
    Posted at 09:52h, 28 December Reply

    Very well described, so meaningful during this holy season. Amazing is it not that when one reflects on this beautiful season, we can relive that holy and humble time of the birth our great Lord. Viola has so very well captured each moment and taken us back in time – Congratulations Viola.

  • Maria Skarzynski
    Posted at 16:16h, 28 December Reply

    Your reflection brings a tear to the eye – it is beautiful. Have a happy Christmas and keep writing!
    From the -26C we have here all through the Christmas season!

  • Mario Coutinho
    Posted at 09:05h, 31 December Reply

    Characteristically, you have captured the feeling of anticipation that the season of Christmas brings to our hearts and minds every year. Your writing fires the mind with an imagination that warms our hearts with warmth, and love for humanity. Keep up the good work, you have so successfully performed.
    God Bless.
    Mario and Olivia

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