Friday, December 23, 2011

No Vacancies

If Mary and Joseph were to arrive in Bethlehem today having travelled from Nazareth they would have found an even bigger problem than they did then. It's very difficult to get in!  Just as 'David's Town' is playing host to huge crowds of international visitors, the people of Bethlehem themselves, many of them Christians, are struggling under the restrictions being placed upon them by the Israeli authorities.  Father Ibrahim Shomali told the Guardian newspaper this week how he thinks the 'holy couple' might fare today. "If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed," says the priest of Bethlehem's Beit Jala parish. "He would either have to be born at a checkpoint or at the separation wall. Mary and Joseph would have needed Israeli permission – or to have been tourists."  Bethlehem is no longer the place we imagine it to be.  Welcome to the real world of the 21st Century Middle East!

But then, this would not be the shock to them that Father Ibrahim imagines.  There was already a 'no vacancies' sign where the young couple wanted to stay.  Luke's gospel calls it 'the Inn' and says that for the lady bearing the Son of God there was no room.  In the original language of the gospel the word translates better as 'guest-chamber' and probably describes that part of the upstairs family accommodation in a typical two-storey dwelling of the period.  Family and guests were upstairs, animals and their mangers were downstairs.  So, maybe Joseph went to his own family relations expecting to be housed there and was refused.  His only option was to place his little family down among the animals where God's Son and his step-son could be born in warmer conditions than outside on the street.  Bethlehem behaves the same then, in 1st and 21st Centuries!

What about my home?  How warm is the welcome in my heart for the Son of God this Christmas?  Is there room for my family - all cosy around a fire - but Jesus finds his place in some draughty church building or even out on the street?  Perhaps the real lesson of the suffering residents of Bethlehem today is that the work of the Prince of Peace is now needed more than ever even in our sophisticated world.

O Little Town of Bethlehem How Sad we see Thee Lie!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Come Alive!

This was the scene in Nazareth Village last week when Matthew and I visited there as part of our special week in Israel.   We took this time out to be just 'father and son' together in advance of Matthew getting married early in 2012 and my starting work again.  It was just great to be touring such special places together.  We hired a car and a Jewish tour guide and saw some spectacular places.  This moment in Nazareth saw us in a re-enactment of a first century Jewish 'carpenter's shop' such as Joseph worked in and Jesus grew up in.  Nearby was a first century wine-press which would almost certainly have been a centre of community gatherings at times of the year for Mary, Joseph and their special son.  All of this helped to prepare us for this special season of Christmas - yet knowing Christ today is so much more important than visiting the places that he walked in 2,000 years ago.  Having said that, it adds a certain colour to our seasonal celebrations to be more able to picture the events and the atmosphere of that time.

Another very special open air place was the Garden of Gethsemane with its ancient olive trees thought by some to date back to the time of Christ.  They need protecting and preservation now after the centuries but they still gave us the opportunity to pause and reflect here on what Jesus went through in that garden, and why.  Funnily enough, prior to my first visit here I always imagined Gethsemane to be an English country garden with lawns and flower beds perfectly symmetrical in their layout with sprinklers and trimmed bushes!  Now that I have seen its stark and dry harshness again I can appreciate how much pain this place meant to Jesus and yet how significant it was to him, and is now to his followers.
Our visit to the Holy Land has given us both food for thought.  We thoroughly enjoyed each other's company and the good nature and hard work of our guide Omri.  Above all, we were grateful for the health and strength granted to me after my long battle with serious illness and the joy of doing something so different to the scores of trips made to distant hospitals in the past.

Christmas came early for me!