I was in Bethlehem this past March. It was my first trip to the holy land and there was a lot that was mind-blowing about it – ancient history, and better understanding of the painful Israeli-Palestinian conflict, walking the streets of Jerusalem, a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims… it was an amazing experience.
One kind of small but very meaningful thing I got from the trip is that aren’t any stables the way we think of a “stable” in Bethlehem because buildings there aren’t mostly made with wood. It’s the desert, and all the structures are sandstone. So, actually, the barn-like structure that gets translated as “stable” for English readers of the Bible isn’t a building at all but a cave – or a grotto.
Away in a grotto
Away in a sheep cave
It doesn’t have the same ring.
I went into the very cave where Jesus is said to have been born. Of course a big, fancy church was long ago built over the site, so that humble place is now the Church of the Nativity right in the center of Bethlehem. You wait in a long, long line with people from all over the world to get down into the actual place of the nativity, which is, as I said, kind of a little cave.
I waited with some of my minister friends and the people-watching was fantastic. You might think that it was a very holy and religious environment. It wasn’t at all. Kids got bored and ran in and out of the line, couples squabbled in many different languages and people talked about where they were going to eat lunch. American evangelical tour groups sang Christmas carols. In March.
There was one very formal local man with a long beard and Orthodox priest’s cap selling the candles and postcards in the little gift shop (there’s always a little gift shop in these pilgrimage sites) wearing what looked to be a fairly permanent scowl etched into his face. I don’t know if his job is at the high or low end of the priestly totem pole – it seems to me it would be an honor to be a caretaker at such a holy shrine, but he seemed quite irritated by all the unruly tourists. I liked him very much. He’s right: if we were properly in touch with the sacred we would have waited in quiet reverence to climb down into the grotto where Mary had her baby.
When you finally get through the long line and climb down the worn stone stairs into the cave, it becomes very womb-like, warm and it smells good. Many centuries of incense have soaked into the walls and so has the breath of many pilgrims – some true believers, some skeptics, some friendly visitors who don’t think about Jesus much one way or another. Being down there and waiting in another line to press my hand to the actual SPOT of Jesus’ birth (I know it’s silly, but once you’ve waited in the long line to get in, another line is fine), I felt connected not so much to Jesus as to humanity. To our yearnings, our needs, to our failures and endless cycle of violence and repair, struggles about dominance over verses collaboration with.
I knew that many people down in that grotto with me came there believing that the most important thing about Jesus is that he came to “save us from our sins.” What they mean by that is that Jesus saves them personally so they can personally go to heaven. Well. That’s not what I believe. That’s not what this tradition teaches. Personal salvation isn’t enough for me and it wasn’t enough for Jesus, who understood that we are not only individuals who need healing and love and but A PEOPLE. A human people, together, whose fate is interwoven.
I believe that the most important thing about Jesus is that he invited us – in the brief shining flare of his life – to follow his example. If we could manage to do that, we would be saved from a lot of sins, together. We would be saved from greed, first of all. And then we’d have so much more to work with to heal the world, to build it up, to care for and rebuild our tired and overheated planet. We would be saved from a smallness of soul and fearful perspective that tries to convince us that there isn’t enough to go around, and that “I” should hoard my share to look out for “my own” and to hell with everyone else.
I want to tell you that this is not just a minister saying righteous words on Christmas Eve. It is absolutely true, every day no matter what arguments anyone has tried to have with you on the subject: the unmistakable core of Jesus’ teachings is a love, and a blueprint for a social order that unmistakably insists that the poor should be cared for, that the rich shall be humbled, that the stranger and the refugee and the immigrant shall be welcomed and honored and included, that women should be listened to and respected, that those who have been judged by moral purity codes should be included and embraced, that children have an important and valuable perspective and are to be cherished as autonomous beings and not just an extension of ourselves, that the law is never more important than love, and that the greatest force in the universe wants it this way.
Jesus called that force God, and Dad, Abba. You may call it whatever you like: creation, ultimate reality, the meaning of life, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Nature, love. By whatever name you call it, I invite you to work with this congregation however and wherever you can toward the fulfillment of its call in our lives.
Earlier, before my tour group went together to the Church of the Nativity to see exactly where Jesus was said to have been born, we stopped at the field where the shepherds heard the first noel, where the angels appeared to them and scared them witless but caused them to actually leave their sheep and run to see what was happening.
It was brown. It was pretty flat. It was actually pretty boring. The Judaean desert right there where it all happened is no more exciting than Worcester. But I sat there and I looked over that field, now called Shepherd’s Field, and I laughed, and I loved it. What a perfect place for angels to show up. Why would I expect them to come somewhere already shining, already glorious, already awe-inspiring? Why would they waste their energy appearing anywhere where humans are already satisfied by beauty and luxurious things to look at and think and do? They wouldn’t. They never have been said to appear under those conditions.
The field was brown and uninteresting. The boys were making sure their sheep didn’t wander away or get attacked by wild animals. The sky was ordinary until angels made their appearance. The stable turned out to be a warm little sandstone cave. The baby who was born there just wanted to accomplish the radical miracle of making us belong to each other so deeply that when one of us cries, the other shall taste salt. That is what is so deep about this night. A cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Let us love one another.
The entrance down into the exact, precise geographical spot where Jesus was born.