It was December 2013 when a dear friend called from Louisiana asking, “Do you know where I am?” A quick mental check told me it was the second weekend of December, and so I answered with a wistful smile, “You’re in Bethlehem.” I was right—and I was flooded with memories of a time past when Renaissance Man and I were in Bethlehem, too.
Over 18 years ago, while living in Louisiana, I was asked to brainstorm—dream out loud—with a small group of church members about a unique way to tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Some churches do Christmas pageants; others do live nativity scenes. We envisioned something more. Much more.
We envisioned a full-scale recreation of 1st century Bethlehem where guests become pilgrims—and part of the story.
And it would be free; a gift to our community.
Eighteen months later—on the second weekend of December 1998—we welcomed our first guests. It had been my privilege to create and oversee the event, coordinating the hundreds of tireless volunteers who put in thousands of hours to turn the dream into reality.
A couple of weekend ago—after 15 years away—Renaissance Man and I returned to Bethlehem. With none of the responsibilities of years past, we simply experienced the event as guests. What a treat!
Upon our arrival, we were seated in the beautiful sanctuary to await our entrance into the City of David. For about an hour, we enjoyed a continuously-running Christmas program of music, dramas, readings, and delights of the season as groups of 20 or so were escorted out—and a steady stream of people entered… a beautiful mix of community.
And then it was our turn.
Gathering in the church foyer, each member of our group was given a shekel coin and told we’d need it to pay our taxes. After a few words about how crowded the city was that night—and warnings to stay together to avoid the brutality of the Roman guards—the doors swung open, and all five senses snapped to full attention as we stepped back 20 centuries in time.
A beggar’s cry of “alms for the blind” rang out in the near-dark of torch light. Lepers—required to stay away—warned “unclean, unclean” as pilgrims like us approached the city gate. We were weary travelers who needed a place to spend the night, but few of us were familiar with Bethlehem. Even if we had been, the city was so full of people coming to pay their mandated taxes that lodging was at a premium. Thankfully, a traveling merchant by the name of Abraham of Jericho took us under his wing, led us safely into the city, and ensured we all paid our taxes as the Roman guards watched, ready to arrest anyone who failed to obey the decree of Caesar Augustus.
As we passed the synagogue, we heard the rabbis discussing the law of Moses and speaking of the prophesied Messiah.
Then the fruit vendor told of a young pregnant woman looking for a place to deliver her child—and said the inn was full to overflowing. I silently grew concerned about my own lodging, but Abraham seemed calm as he purchased a pomegranate to save for his evening meal.
Suddenly, a dirty street child shoved his way through our group, stealing a piece of fruit as he ran away into the night. THIEF!
… Hungry orphan.
Everywhere I turned there were people! Vendors, taking advantage of the growing throng of pilgrims, hawked their wares as we passed: pottery, baskets, rugs, rope, metalware, sandals to replace the ones wearing thin from days of travel. The aromas of fresh-baked bread and sizzling meats brought hunger pains as we passed the crowded, “no vacancy” inn. And added to the mix of humanity were the sounds—and smells—of animals: sheep, goats, ducks, rabbits. The din was almost overwhelming!
I was so thankful for our guide, and I was sure Abraham would find a place for us to spend the night… until I began hearing the rumors of a baby born in a stable. Imagine! What was the world coming to? Surely I wouldn’t have to spend the night in a smelly stable.
Further into the bustling city I walked, jostled on every side; stories of a baby in a stable growing more frequent. Vendors shouting. Guards barking orders. The bray of a donkey. Shepherds telling of angels and a baby sent from God. Children forcing their way through the crowd, clinging tightly to stolen goods. So much confusion and noise!
And then suddenly all grew quiet, and I realized we pilgrims were standing at a stable. And wrapped in a soft cloth, sleeping in a crudely-built cattle manger, was a newborn baby. The rumors…
A baby born in a stable.
I stood spellbound as Abraham of Jericho told the new parents how word of miraculous events concerning their child was spreading throughout the city. He wanted to know more…
And then the young mother shared how an angel from God told her she would become pregnant and have a special child—and another angel appeared to her husband and told him to name the baby “Jesus”. And just as Abraham wondered aloud if the baby was the promised Messiah, he suddenly reached out and grabbed a young boy who was slowly approaching the infant.
ABRAHAM: (Angrily) Go no further, boy! This is a newborn baby. (To Mary:) The child is a thief! And he is unclean!
MARY: Come child. It’s all right.
CHILD: They say he’s special. What makes him so special?
MARY: He’s special because your heavenly father sent him.
CHILD: Father? I don’t have a father. (with conviction) I don’t need a father.
MARY: But you do have a father—and he cares about you; about us—enough to send his son. (indicating the baby)
CHILD: (Bitterly) No one cares about me.
MARY: Oh, but you’re wrong. God has always cared about you. (As CHILD slowly kneels and gently touches the baby) He is God’s gift to you.
CHILD: (Shaking head in disbelief) To me? God’s gift to me?
MARY: Yes… to all of us.
CHILD: God’s gift to me… What do I do? How can I thank him?
MARY: (pondering a moment) I don’t know, but it must come from your heart. Trust God. He will show you.
I saw Abraham’s countenance soften as he observed the exchange between the young mother and the child thief. Kneeling down beside the little boy, Abraham offered the pomegranate he was saving for his meal. In reluctant disbelief, the child accepted it, slowly turning to walk away. I stood transfixed, the child’s questions still in my mind: God’s gift to me? What do I do? How can I thank him?
Suddenly, in horror, Abraham shouted,
As I strained to see what was happening, I caught a glimpse of the young boy slowly approaching a group of lepers. In spite of their feeble cries of “unclean,” the child walked right up to them—his dirty little hand extended—and offered his fruit.
As I stood at the door of the stable—in the presence of the Baby—I marveled at the transformations in Abraham and the child thief, recent conversation replaying in my mind… “No one cares about me.” God has always cared about you.” God’s gift to me?” Yes, to ALL of us.
God’s gift to me—and you.
Eternal, abundant, peace-filled life is found in God’s Son—the Baby in the manger.
It’s a gift already given… just waiting to be accepted. Why not today? No strings attached.