The first time I traveled to Israel and visited Bethlehem, I expected to feel a sense of the beauty and simplicity of the much-loved Christmas story: a crude stable, the holy family, shepherds, wise men, and the Son of God in the manger. I was sadly disappointed. The traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is inside the Church of the Nativity—a truly ancient church built in 565 AD. It has survived enemy invasions, the Crusaders, restorations, renovations, a fire and an earthquake, but it looks like . . . well, a church. A beautifully decorated and ornamented church, with all the sacred clutter that has accumulated over the centuries, but it bore no resemblance to my image of what Jesus’ birthplace was like.
But wait—the real site was down a set of stairs and inside a natural cave that has been venerated as the place of His birth since 160 AD. But even this simple cave was so gilded and bedecked with artwork and tapestries and lamps and incense burners that I still couldn’t get a sense of what it might have looked like on that first holy night. In the center of the floor was a silver-encrusted star with a hole in the middle. By putting my hand inside, I could touch the place where Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago. I tried it, but I left Bethlehem feeling empty, unable to make the sacred connection I had so longed for.
And isn’t that how so many of our Christmases in the past ended up feeling? In spite of all the tinsel and glitter and sparkle, all the money we spent and the stress we endured as we tried to create the perfect Hallmark Christmas, we were often left with the same let-down feeling I had inside that church in Bethlehem. We’ve lost the simple beauty of the story, that precious connection with Jesus that is the true miracle of Bethlehem.
But this year—surprise! Many of the Christmas traditions we have come to love—like family gatherings and parties and Christmas concerts and church programs—have been stripped away, leaving the holiday a mere shadow of itself. Christmas is starting to resemble the classic Dr. Seuss book, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” as Covid-19 slithered into our homes and communities and stole so many of the festivities we’ve long enjoyed.
But do you remember how the Dr. Seuss story ended? After the Grinch had taken everything away, Christmas morning still dawned. The startled Grinch could hear people singing and celebrating and rejoicing. We can do the same. The cookies and lights and parties aren’t what Christmas is about. Jesus is. His birth in Bethlehem is still worth celebrating, whether we’re alone, far from our families, or in a packed church sanctuary singing Handel’s “Halleluiah Chorus.”
Maybe this will be the year that we’ll recapture the simplicity of Christ’s incarnation. Maybe the clutter and glitz that have draped themselves over our past celebrations are like the religious trappings that have collected inside the Church of the Nativity over the centuries. Whether we gather with our loved ones in person or around our computer screens, we can still feel the holy wonder of Christmas—Emmanuel, God with us! I pray that your celebrations, no matter how small, will be filled with joy this Christmas season.