“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” – Matthew 2:6
Today’s iconic Advent symbol is “Bethlehem.” Not so much the Nativity itself, but the place, and what it represents. Because Bethlehem – both 2,000 years ago and today – stands as a symbol both of oppression and of salvation.
This may be just our second December in North Carolina, but the Wake Forest Presbyterian Church “Walk Through Bethlehem” living nativity has already achieved “tradition” status.
The event is the perfect way to set the stage for the coming of the King. It becomes much less of a challenge to keep our spiritual awareness on track in December’s marketing madness, when we have already taken a step back in time to immerse ourselves in the beginnings of The Greatest Story Ever Told.
BETHLEHEM: Jesus was born into a harsh, oppressive world. There was little opportunity for Christ’s people, and the authorities were bullies no-one could hold to account.
The time and the place pretty-much guaranteed that the new baby would be raised in an atmosphere where life was hard, where the little that people had was often taken away, where the average person was considered less than worthless by those in power, and where hope was little more than a fairy-tale.
It was a place much like the Bethlehem of today, where a different people are held under the thumb of those in power, and where hope is seldom a part of the conversation any more.
It was much like many communities we know too well, closer to home, where those who lack power, and opportunity, and – worse – hope, are often bullied without apparent recourse, and stereotyped because of their “race.”
WAKE FOREST: That is the kind of scene some 250 volunteers from our church worked hard to portray and to offer as our Christmas Card to the community.
Over three evenings, including a mostly rained-out Saturday, 2,885 people made their way through WFPC’s Bethlehem in groups of 35. Sunday evening, a record 1,379 braved near freezing temperatures for the experience.
We provided a limitless supply of cider, hot chocolate, and cookies. The actors may have been awesome, but the behind the scenes work in the kitchen, the logistics, and the parking lot, can only be described as EPIC!
THE POINT! So here’s the point of this morning’s post. Why would all those volunteers work so hard, and for so long? Why would we go to such lengths, and at such expense, to tell such a simple story?
Well, God sent Jesus to Bethlehem under such harsh circumstance in order to offer his children hope; to put the promise of the covenant into a more accessible form; to open the door, once and for all, to healing, and restoration and peace.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Luke 1:30-33
That is exactly why we build Bethlehem in Wake Forest; that is exactly why the words of the angel are so apropos in Bethlehem (Palestine) today; this is exactly why the story needs not just to be told, but to be LIVED, in Ferguson, Missouri, in New York, in Durham, and anywhere else where God’s children are faced with darkness, and injustice, and disillusionment, and where the words of hope seem to have lost their edge.
We are all called to be light in dark places. As followers of the Living Way of Jesus, being light is not optional, “Oh, that’s not my gift….” No, rather than drawing the blinds to shut out the darkness (which is what we tend to do), we are called to take the light that we have – the light that we are – and then risk everything by stepping into the darkness.
That’s what Jesus did in Bethlehem.
Today’s “Gallery” comprises a few of my photographs from Walk Through Bethlehem: