I found it most fitting to spy out my bus window, a young shepherd and his faithful dog, herding the sheep in this town famous for it’s angelic revelation to the shepherds in the fields centuries ago. Bethlehem lies less than ten miles from Jerusalem, but the bustling city only had a meager population of from 300 to 1000 at Jesus birth.
Significant in many ways, it is the burial site of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, Gen 35:19. And home to my favorite love story, Ruth the faithful foreigner meets Bethlehamite Boaz and marries him smack before he knew what hit him.
Shepherd boy David hailed from here and was anointed as King in 1 Samuel 16:1. Years later the thirsty refugee soldier received water to drink from his Mighty Men, who broke through the Philistine occupation to get him water from the well of Bethlehem, 2 Samuel 23:13-17.
Unpretentious and common to the area, the stable that Jesus was born in was thought to be a cave. The 6th century Church of the Nativity, oldest in Israel is built over the “site”. The first church was built in AD 135, then destroyed by the Romans who created a pagan shrine for Adonis in this plaza.
I stooped low to enter through the humble doorway unaware that I would straighten and become blinded by the opulent setting before me. Mosaics, and carvings and paintings and gold and jewels covered dense every surface of the interior. Overwhelmed with the splendor, it was hard to remember that I was at the threshold of a stable.
As we waited in a long slow moving line, I searched in vain for anything that resembled the humble beginnings. As I wound down the stairs to the grotto, I was able to see some of the rocky surface uncovered where tradition says baby Jesus was laid. As warmth against a breezy February day, I wore a scarf around my neck, but felt a mighty compulsion to pull it over my head. This was the first time in my life that I ever felt so humbled small that my bare head felt irreverent.
As I peered into the darkness of the cave, a priest sat near, reading his bible, oblivious to the hushed whispers of the crowds. Unprepared for the raw emotion, I wiped surreptitiously as tears pricked unbidden.
And I remembered the supernatural that dazzled here, as fitting for the birth of my Lord. With angels descending, a star that guided, and dreams with pointed directives, this place was drenched holy by the birth of God Almight, Luke 2:16. Shepherds came innocent, but the Magi, following the brilliant orb to this site, unwittingly set into motion a horrific event. Being warned by an Angel not to reveal the location of baby Jesus as Herod requested, they returned home by a different route.
Foiled by the Magi, it is in Bethlehem that the talented builder of much of Israel’s opulent edifices, Herod the Great, exacts his evil plan. Always on the alert for usurpers, with many sliding deep into paranoia, ancient Kings would kill mothers, wives and sons, anything to preserve their thrones from overthrow.
Wailing mothers of Bethlehem who could not be comforted, vibrated the streets as Herod had all boys under the age of two murdered in his mad scheme to find King Jesus, Matthew 2:13-18. But Jesus was long gone, warned by an angel in a dream, brave Joseph gathered his little family and fled quiet in the cover of night to the haunting country of ancient Israelite bondage, Egypt.
One of the most ancient cities in the world, it was called Salem in 2000BC and home to High Priest Melchizedek, King of Salem, who blessed Abraham. Genesis 14:18
Thrill bubbling through my veins as we arrived in the busy city at dusk, we were too excited to retire, so a small group of us opted for an evening stroll. Twilight fell thick around us as the magical city lights twinkled in an aura of unreal.
The greenbelt we paralleled was called the Valley of Hinnom, which in ancient Greek is Gehenna. Thinking it a place of beauty, I changed my mind when I learned it reeked of unholy ground. The site of ancient child sacrifices, it became a trash dump for the deceased and anything undesirable. Some scholars think fires burned at all times to deal with the bodies and trash filling it’s vale.
According to Jewish tradition it was a cursed place of destruction. Jesus refers to Gehenna eleven times in reference to destruction. So basically we walked by “Hell”. “It is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into Gehenna into the unquenchable fire,” Mark 9:43.
Through the Dung gate, The Preacher and I strolled, hand in hand into the Jewish quarter. Surrounded by Hasidic Jews with their sideburn curls, solemn black garb and stovepipe hats, I felt transported back through time a hundred years.
The Wailing Wall loomed magnificent, but tired and worn with the weight of thousands of petitions tucked in every crease and crevice. Not an actual temple wall, but a support of the Temple Mount, it is the only wall left standing after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. It remains the most sacred spot in Jewish tradition.
With my prayer tucked tight in my pocket I approached solemn. Tears leaked free at the visceral knowledge that I could physically place a prayer near the burial ground of the Temple and the ancient residence of God himself, the Holy of Holies.
Again, I felt compelled to cover my head in reverence. Letting God’s presence soak into my soul, I wedged my folded paper into a crack and placed my hand bold on the cool stone wall as I prayed fervent for my four beloved children and Jim, a cancer stricken friend.
And a peace washed my soul.
I know that God is present in my life daily and if I allow myself to be still and quiet, I can pray with the same fervency.
Though I don’t see angels, his promises ring bold through the ages for me even unto today.
And I bow thankful for his lowly birth.
Because of it, I have no fear of Gehenna,
For I have the love and protection of the LORD.
“But you LORD are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. I call out to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy mountain.” Psalm 3:3