For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. – Isaiah 9:6
Every November we have this kind of “season-opener” event at our church that really tells me Christmas is well and truly on the way. It helped of course that Saturday afternoon was 42-degrees, on the edge of raining, and as wintery as fall gets around here.
What happened was the first rehearsal (walk-through) of our annual “Walk Through Beehlehem” event. WTB is absolutely hands-down the best “experience an authentic first-century Christmas” production I have ever seen, and it’s become a signature mark your calendar weekend for the entire community of Wake Forest.
I am in my third year as one of the guides, so that makes me fairly well qualified to describe what happens on our campus. Believe me when I tell you it is more special than you can imagine.
It works like this: Our visitors gather downstairs in the Christian Life Center, go through a Disneyesque crowd-control maze, “register” (like the Roman census), get assigned to one of 12 tribes (Dan, Asher, Gad, Judah etc.), feast on cookies and hot cider, then meet up with their guide (there are ten of us) for the journey to Bethlehem.
“Greetings, tribe of (Whoever they are),” I will begin, having gathered around 25 travelers around me. “We must report to Bethlehem for the census; we face a difficult journey and we have a long way to travel. But I hear a new star has appeared in the east! Listen closely for signs, keep your eyes open, and try to blend in with the crowds. Try not to be intimidated by the Roman soldiers and do not stray from the path.”
Then we will begin our journey, literally journeying into Israel at the time of Jesus, not as spectators but participants. We will have a dozen or so encounters with oppressed villagers, engaging story-tellers, intimidating soldiers, real-life sheep, conniving tax-collectors, merchants in the marketplace, exotic travelers from the east, a despotic king, friendly shepherds, heavenly messengers, tired and irritated inn-keepers, more angels, and a beautiful young family excited to introduce their newborn child.
By the time I have guided my tribe of visitors through to Bethlehem we will have all been drawn in to the ages old narrative of promise, danger, adventure, love, and birth.
This is not some tableau. It’s not a lame pantomime. It’s no drive-through shop-window production. It does not promise a view of flying angels or the appearance of as 50-voice choir singing “The Hallelujah Chorus.”
Instead, our church invites visitors to join a Jewish tribe and to walk through history and into first-century Bethlehem.
It is quite possible some people will get frightened by an over-zealous Roman soldier, bump into a young pregnant woman and realize it is Mary, get too close to a roaring fire, feel intimidated by the raw ego and cruel power of Herod, get some mud on their shoes – or maybe something worse.
But they will get their December off to the proper kind of a start, they will remember – poignantly – why the story is so important, they will face the opportunity to move forward into Advent with the heart of the story intact, they will be challenged to meet Jesus and remember exactly why he still comes today.
So, yes, I am excited to be part of this initiative of hope, peace, joy, and love. I pray that even more people than last year’s record crowds will understand what Christmas is really all about, and I pray that – for the literally hundreds of people involved in putting this “Gift to the Community” together – this is the most blessed year yet.
Peace and light and promise – DEREK