Merry Christmas from Bethlehem!
At the beginning of this year, I prayed that I might be able to make a trip to Israel to visit all the places that I have read about in the Bible. Boy, was my prayer answered. I got to go not just once, but twice this year! The first time was a sponsored food trip in September and then I was able to go again in November with my church group! (This was the first time ever that my church organized such a trip!)
On both occasions, my journey started north of Jerusalem around the Sea of Galilee. This freshwater lake would have been quite insignificant on the world map except for the fact that many of Jesus' miracles and exploits were recorded there. It was amazing to be able to see the Kinneret (as it is known locally), touch its waters and recall how Jesus called out to his first disciples while they were fishing! When I was in primary school, we used to sing "Fishers of men". Now, three decades later, I could stand at the place where that song referred to. It was amazing!
The area around the Sea of Galilee was, as it is now, mainly a rural area where lots of farming takes place. It does however contain many fascinating historical sites. We visited a new excavation site at Magdala (yet to be officially opened) where they found a first century synagogue that was virtually untouched since the Romans destroyed it in the first century. The archeologists are almost 100% sure that Jesus would have taught in that particular synagogue since it would have been the synagogue in Mary Magdalene's home town.
From the Sea of Galilee we traveled south to Jericho and then West towards Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives and recalled how Jesus would have seen the city and wept over it in the last few days leading up to his crucifixion. The sight of Jerusalem rising over the horizon is one of those pivotal moments in my life which I would cherish forever. Even though I have never been there before, it felt as if I had come home.
Anyway, it is Christmas, so I would like to share with you two videos I shot when we visited Bethlehem. Again, this small insignificant town would have been lost on the world map except for the fact that it was the town where Jesus was born. It is still a relatively small city in the West Bank whose main industry is tourism. Each year around Christmas time, Christian pilgrims will throng the The Church of the Nativity to commemorate the birth of Jesus. Considered the oldest continuously operating church in the world, it was built by St Helena in 327AD over a cave where it was traditionally believed that Jesus was born.
For such a large and significant Church which welcomes thousands of pilgrims annually, the entrance was very understated. Many would have missed the simple unadorned hole-in-the-wall if it wasn't pointed out to them. It was barely large enough for one or two persons to enter! We were told that the entrance was originally much bigger but they had to fill it up in order to prevent animals or men on horseback to be able to enter!
In retrospect, the simple entrance to the Church has a deeper and more significant meaning. God did not choose to enter the world in pomp and ceremony. Instead, He chose to be born in a humble cave in the company of some farm animals. So it would seem quite apt that the entrance of the church be reminiscent of the entrance to a cave that Jesus was born in.
We got a better idea of the kind of place where they laid the infant Jesus when we visited the Shepherd's Field. This area of Bethlehem was believed to be the place where the shepherds would have watched over their flocks by night. (NOT "while the shepherds washed their socks by night" please!) I asked our tour guide how they could be so sure. She told me that the town of Bethlehem is very hilly except for this one area which was more flat. So, they were quite certain this would have been where the shepherd's field would have been.
There were a few caves in the vicinity where the shepherds would have used to keep their sheep. Here, in the quiet of the caves, you could better imagine what would have happened on that "Silent Night, Holy Night". It probably felt like just any other night for the shepherds until the angels appeared to announced the birth of the Savior. Again, the fanfare was only large enough to attract the attention of a few shepherds. The rest of Bethlehem was oblivious to what was happening on the other side of town!
We meditated on the significance of Christmas in the quietness of one of these caves and felt so moved that God would choose to became a man in order to dwell amongst us. The bible tells us that God "chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; He chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong." 1 Cor 1:27. If we had expected God to enter into human history in grandeur and ceremony then we would have missed the baby in the manger. However, He did leave enough signs for those who would look for it.
One of the very interesting signs was the Star of Bethlehem. It is written in the Bible that:
"... after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." Matthew 2:1-2
This star was even seen by Chinese astrologers who recorded
"In the second year of the period of Ch'ien-p'ing, second month, a hui-hsing appeared in Ch'ien-niu for more than 70 days"
Many have debated on the nature of this "Star". Some think it was a comet while more recently astronomers have postulated that it could be the confluence of Jupiter and a star in the night sky.
Here is a very interesting video which uses computer software to map out what happened in the night sky during the time of Jesus birth. From this we can have an idea of what the "wise men from the East" could have observed that brought them to Bethlehem.
Star of Bethlehem: Video from www.bethlehemstar.net
The video and the archeology just shows how accurate and reliable the accounts in the Bible actually are The star, Bethlehem, the Shepherd's Field, these all point to a pivotal event that happened 2000 years ago that changed human history. It all happened in a quiet little cave on a quiet night observed only by some animals and a few shepherds.
So what we observe during Christmas? Do we see Santa Claus, his reindeers and the bright lights of Orchard Road or will we enter into the quiet of the cave and find God's precious gift to the world? Even though God did not announce it with fireworks in the sky, He did leave enough clues such that those who truly seek Him shall surely find him.
A Blessed Christmas to everyone!