When I was preparing to visit the Holy Land, from my desk in Durham I rang a respected senior minister I have known since my schooldays to ask him: What should I expect in Israel? He had been leading trips to Israel for many years and I expected a list of key places to visit, sights to see, opportunities not to be missed. Without hesitation he said simply: ‘Mark, that’s easy: expect the Incarnation to become much more real to you.’ We talked some more but the conversation was much shorter than I expected. The first sentence was all I remember and said it all.
He was right. In Israel, our group spent two and a half weeks in a retreat centre right on the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. Jerusalem was five miles north. Bethlehem three miles south, but over the border, through a heavily guarded IDF checkpoint that we could see from the balcony window. I hadn’t even realised these two key biblical cities are just a couple of (hot!) hours walk apart. We spent another week outside Tiberias, right on the sea of Galilee. We saw site after site of historical interest and biblical resonance that put even Rome in the shade.
At most of the sites I found myself with queries verging on cynicism. The Garden Tomb looked a bit too much like how a 19th century English aristocrat would imagine Jesus’ tomb would look. Tiny Sower’s Bay with its acoustically perfect semi-circular banked beach on the Sea of Galilee wasn’t there 2000 years ago for Jesus to teach his parables from a boat a few metres out to sea. But in each case a single, more elevated, thought pulled me up short: it happened here somewhere. This is where my Lord walked. Jesus knew this place. This is real.
We were taken to two sites particularly associated with the Christmas story, both of which will appear on your Christmas cards and in your carols this and every Christmas.
The first is Beit-Sahour, the hill on which the angels appeared to the shepherds. To get to the shepherd’s hill you go through a gate in a garden wall. Before the gate stand, stalls selling religious tat of the kind least attractive to a reluctant tourist like me (and a Protestant one at that). Models of Jesus with a prominent sacred heart (complete with cross) that flash and glow in the dark don’t do it for me (you won’t be surprised to hear…). Through the gate it’s a short walk to the top of the hill with a great view both north towards Jerusalem and across to Bethlehem. Just below the top is the low cave with a smoke blackened roof in which the shepherds (we were confidently told) slept on the night of the angelic visitation. Cue another ‘official’ stall selling glowing baby Jesuses and a small altar with more decorations than your average Christmas tree. Stepping out of the gaudy cave I looked across the hills to Bethlehem. And I thought again: ‘it happened here somewhere’. ‘If this is not the hill, I can see it from here.’ There were real shepherds on a real hill and real angels and real fear and real joy and a swift trek down the hill to find a real family and a real baby in that town right there. And I wondered again at the glory to God and peace on earth. ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ ran through my head. In July. And the Incarnation was more real.
The second ‘Christmas’ site was much more famous: the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square in Bethlehem. The entrance door (The Door of Humility) to the church is famously low – just four feet high. This low and narrow entrance not only keeps the church from getting too busy but also means that every visitor must stoop and humble themselves as they go to see the birthplace of the Lord Jesus. It felt like an arrangement which echoed in just a small way the humility of our Lord in coming among us.
The Church of the Nativity is relatively simple inside and the bauble sellers have been kept at bay. The main decorative feature of the church is hanging oil lamps in what is otherwise a dark and quite austere space. Under the eastern end of the church is a grotto or cave with a famous red and gold decorated altar. Beneath the altar is a marble slab with a fourteen point star (a reference to the generations of the genealogy in Matthew 1). The star surrounds a hole below which is the ‘stone on which Mary laid Jesus when he was born’. Nearby altars stand over the ‘location of the manger’ and over ‘the place where the Magi adored the Lord Jesus.’ Elsewhere under the church are a couple of much simpler low caves dating from the first century: ‘It probably looked more like this’ the guide suggested. That helped. ‘It happened here somewhere’.
The cries of a hungry baby boy echoed through these streets 2000 plus years ago. My Lord was born in blood and pain, washed with water, wrapped in simple cloths, fed at a young mother’s breast, and laid in an animal’s feeding trough. The Lord of glory – no bigger than the area my two hands.
A real hill with a real view over a real village with a real family and a real child cuts through not just the tinsel, the tree and the turkey. It also fills the images and the carols with much fuller meaning. It happened right here. The Word became flesh and lived among us. And I’ve walked where he walked. More importantly – he walked where we walk. Salvation is much more than just an idea it is a person. As the Queen said in her 2011 Christmas Day message: ‘God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general (important though they are) – but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.’ The Incarnation is much more than his birth – it is the whole of his life as a first century Jewish man living, dying, and rising among us – for our sake and for our salvation. The Word made flesh was more real to me not only in Bethlehem but in Jerusalem and Emmaus and Tiberias. But on a bright, warm, July day, I stood on shepherd’s hill, looked across to Bethlehem and heard again: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those in whom he delights.’