It was March, 1999, and we were on the Holy Land Tour sponsored by the Upper Columbia Conference. We had seen many important sites and now finally we were going to Bethlehem. The bus was full of forty of us pastors and wives. One of our guides was a Catholic Hebrew from Jerusalem. The other guide was a seminary professor from Andrews University. The bus driver was a Palestinian who didn’t get involved in the religious discussion. The Conference Secretary was our host and tour manager. Bethlehem was not only the birthplace of Jesus, but also the hometown of David and the adopted town of Ruth.
We read the story of the shepherds watching their flocks by night, hearing the angel chorus, and rushing to the stable where Joseph and Mary, and now Jesus found shelter for the night. Bethlehem is about 100 feet higher in elevation than Jerusalem and is located about 6 and a half miles to the southwest of Jerusalem. The city we visited was crowded with narrow streets, many businesses and houses and located on a hill. The bus stopped a couple blocks away from the church where the traditional site of the Nativity took place. The door to this ancient church was about four feet high and about four feet wide as well. It was built like that to prevent soldiers on horseback from riding into the church to check on the worshipers. The city has gone through several conflicts because of its importance to several religions. The Crusaders of the 11th and 12th centuries were especially interested in preserving the city for Christianity and keeping the Moslems from ruining the sacred site. We entered the church by bending low and immediately we smelled the incense that hundreds of pilgrims had lit in worship and honor of the sacred place. The church was large enough for about 500 people or more. We continued toward the front of the church and then turned off to the left and went behind the pulpit platform area and then went down some stone steps to a small grotto or cave which is common in the area. Many houses are built in front of small caves. About ten or twelve feet down from the floor of the church we came to a small cave with a large silver star which supposedly marked the spot of the birth. All forty of us could just barely fit in that room surrounded by rock. We again read the story of the birth of Jesus and then sang several Christmas carols. I remember Silent Night, Joy to the World, The First Noel, O Come All Ye Faithful, and several others. Though it didn’t seem like all the stories of the barn and the animals, we did sense a special atmosphere, that this was indeed Bethlehem and indeed our Savior was born somewhere near here if not this spot.
About 300 years after Jesus’ life here on earth, Constantine’s mother was instrumental in selecting many of the holy sites to bring pilgrim Christians to worship and confirm their faith. She picked out sites that looked probable and on each site a church was erected. Four churches of various denominations surround the site of Jesus crucifixion though nobody really knows that exact site either. We left with a sense of awe. A special experience that anyone can have with the sense of God’s presence through the reading of His Word and the singing of praises to Him. Our prayer was that we continue to prepare for His Coming again by being faithful. Not allowing the ways of the world and the commercialization of Jesus take over our hearts. His beginning could have been in a humble cave. His burial was in a rich man’s cave. He doesn’t live in either of those places. He is preparing a place for us so that we can be where He is, and not just where He was. May you receive gift of Jesus for Christmas.