How Far is it to Bethlehem?
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?