What a joy to visit Bethlehem just ahead of Christmas! I was there twelve days ago. Just like that first Christmas, as Luke tells it to us, there were lots of visitors in town – only these visitors were not there on business, needing to register themselves for the census that was being undertaken. These visitors were pilgrims, wanting to see the place where Jesus was born, marked now, not by a stable or any other form of domestic or farm building, but by a church. This is an interesting church, not just because of what it marks, but because there has been a church on this site from very early times, and we were able to see something of the indicators as to how it had been adapted and added on to down through the ages.
We were able to imagine a very tired Mary arriving in Bethlehem, desperately wanting to find somewhere to rest and then, almost immediately, discovering that the baby was on its way. We have sanitised the story and made a pretty picture of it, but giving birth in a draughty and, almost certainly, messy stable, cannot have been something anyone would have wanted for their child and themselves.
Being in Bethlehem and thinking back some two thousand or so years was very interesting. There were lots of folk wanting to see the place where Jesus was born. We only queued up some ten minutes or so, but I am told it can take an awful lot longer. Why are there so many twenty-first century pilgrims who want to encounter this spot, when it was just a few shepherds in the first century? One of the things to learn is not to be in a hurry, and to realise that God’s time is always best. People were selling all sorts of things, but mainly souvenirs. I suspect there were lots of people selling things in Jesus’ time too, but they would more likely be food and the basic necessities of life. What do we spend our money on? That is always an interesting question to ask. What are the priorities for us? And perhaps we are helped to work that out when we pause to ponder where it is that God would have us be, what it is that God would have us do?
At Bethlehem that first Christmas, that great thing that we often refer to as the incarnation took place. What does that mean for us here and now?