Musings from the Middle East: Bethlehem

Modern day Bethlehem is not a particularly pleasant place to be.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of fascinating history to see there. But the town is an overcrowded, bustling, unattractive tourist magnet. On every corner are the same overpriced souvenirs, and the town itself is poorly maintained and built on top of itself. It is nothing like the nativity postcard pictures of Bethlehem.

Even the Church of the Nativity, possibly the most famous church in the world, built over the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, is a bit underwhelming. It is a series of structures built on top of each other, covering some rock caves with carvings and shrines created over the last 2,000 years. Perhaps the most spiritually attractive part of the town is the outskirts, where dilapidated stone sheep pens are visible on the hill where David tended his sheep.

And yet the experience of Bethlehem is, in a strange way, quite similar to what it was 2,000 ago.
When Mary and Joseph arrived, it was not a cute, quaint village on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
It was a poor village, absolutely packed with people gathered for a census. The baby Jesus was born in the midst of this, laid in an animal’s feeding trough because there was no space for him. This, the birth of God himself as a human baby, did not happen in a magical, sacred place. It was in a normal, humble, unappealing place. It was- and is- a human place.

If you get the opportunity, I certainly recommend visiting Bethlehem. There is some cool stuff to look at, and I found visiting to be personally beneficial. But do not go there expecting a spiritually sacred experience. Go there to see that the place where the creator of the cosmos first laid his head was just another bit of this world. It is special to God, but so is the whole of his creation. He is just as truly present in your backyard as he is in that little cave under Bethlehem (in fact, it will probably be easier to draw close to God in your backyard).

So, in this time when international travel is not likely for the foreseeable future, let me encourage you to spend some time with God in the ordinary places around you. Take out your Bible and sit in the backyard, go to a park, or even just relax on your couch or favorite chair. In all of these places, God is just as present as he is in the place Christ was born. In all of these places he is listening and caring for you—as he always is and always will.

I look forward to when we can see each other again and chat in person!

Nathanael

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