I love “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” with their plaintive melodies about the dark quiet streets of that obscure, beloved village under the stars, waiting with hopes and fears for the Christ to be born. But the Bethlehem I found on my last visit to the Middle East was anything but quiet or plaintive. Instead, it was crowded, noisy, and exhaust-filled, as drivers blasted their horns and shouted loudly at each other through open windows.
My small group was deposited, heads spinning, at the Church of the Nativity, where surely we would find some peace and good will. It was, after all, the oldest functioning church in the world, dating back to A.D. 339, when it was built on the spot where Justin Martyr said Jesus had likely been born.
The enormous basilica was under renovation. Scaffolding crosshatched the interior, obscuring the astonishing pillars, the ancient mosaic floors. Undeterred, people from all over the world stood patiently in line, filing past police stationed there to keep the peace. I, too, stood and watched and followed. All had come for this: to step down into the grotto, to kneel and lean into a tiny cavern where there was barely room for a single body. There, a silver star adorned the floor, marking the place where many people believe Mary gave birth to Jesus.
On this day, a tour guide stood outside the room, pushing people through with shouts: “That’s enough! You go! Next! Next in line!” as men and women took their turn. Each one knelt to fit into the tiny space, flashed a photo of the star on the floor, rubbed an arm on its silvery surface or swept a scarf across it while bodies pressed before and behind. The air was thick and damp. One elderly woman in a headscarf lingered in her worship a few seconds too long. “That’s enough! Too long! You get out!” the tour guide yelled at her before impatiently waving the next person in.
The present reality [of Bethlehem] mocked my lullaby image of that dear place.
When I emerged, stumbling, from the grotto, the tour guides could be heard across the church speaking in Italian, French, Polish, and English—their voices mixed with the hushed chatter of the pilgrims. It was a glorious sound, but then above it all, a shout came, “Stop! Stop talking! You!” I spotted a policeman in a distant corner, gesturing to the guides. The buzz of voices continued, unfazed. He tried again, louder this time, “A service is beginning. Stop now or I’ll kick you all out!” Above his voice and the tourists’ mumbling, the drone of chanting began over in the Orthodox sanctuary.
What chaos, I thought. This church is occupied by police and six denominations that operate their own separate realms of this contested cathedral, all eager for a claim to the birthplace of Christ. Sometimes there is peace between them all—sometimes not. The police have broken up brawling priests on occasion.
The day wasn’t over. Near the end, the guide unexpectedly took us to a glistening souvenir shop. It wasn’t on our itinerary. He smiled and rubbed his hands and urged us all to shop ’til we dropped. “It’s all on sale—a 20 percent discount, just for you!” he said. Two men approached us grinning widely, ready to usher us to the cash register. Minutes later, most in my group left the shop empty-handed. The well-dressed owner, running out of quarry, approached me and began to plead: “You must support us! You simply have to buy something here!”
It was not the happy day I imagined in Bethlehem. I found no peace on that small piece of earth, no pretty little town lying still as it waited for a Savior. I found no silent moment, no light shining from dark streets—only shouting coming from the church that lauds His birth. The present reality mocked my lullaby image of that dear place.
My attempts to create a cathedral of worship for Jesus will likely end up a mess. But Jesus already knows all of this, and in the end, everything will be all right.
But later, after I returned home, I realized how hopeful this all was. Yes, there is constant wrestling over that city and that church because both are held as precious. And was Bethlehem so very different that sacred day? Because of the census, everyone was returning to his hometown and the hotelkeepers were raking it in. The restaurants were overfilled. Every family rented out whatever room they had and charged too much. The noise, the dirt, the animal dung on sandals—everyone too busy making money and trying to get ahead. They paid no thought to a baby born in the hay that night. It was all a mess.
I’m so relieved. I’ll never be as quiet or still as I want to be at Christmas. I won’t make everything clean and beautiful. There will be dirty rooms and impatient shouts. There will be too many people at the wrong time and not enough at the right time. The Christmas program I am writing for our church will be unremarkable, and we’ll forget our lines. We’ll try to profit from the season, selling our own wares—and we’ll also spend too much. My attempts to create a cathedral of worship for Jesus will likely end up a mess.
But Jesus already knows all of this, and in the end, everything will be all right. Because this is exactly the kind of place He chose to be born. This is exactly the kind of people He chose to be born among. And these are exactly the kind of people He was born to save.
We don’t have to clean it all up or perfect it. We make room for the season. We kneel. And enter in.
Illustration by Greg Clarke