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The Very Special Christmas Child

The Very Special Christmas Child

Monday December 8 2014

Although I was later to visit Bethlehem many times, my first personal acquaintance with it was a distant glance when it was enshrouded in rain and mist.

It was half a century ago. I had accepted an invitation from British India Steam Navigation Company to serve as the Protestant chaplain on a school cruise on their ship ‘Dunera’ to the Mediterranean which would incorporate a two-day visit to the Holy Land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

We duly tied up at Haifa early on Christmas Eve and hurriedly and excitedly got ready to disembark on a sun-kissed morning to board the waiting buses for a visit to Jerusalem. By the time we reached Jerusalem the rain was falling steadily which, among other things, cast the proverbial damper on one item of this Christmas Eve outing which I along with many others had been anticipating as the highlight of the excursion – a view of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

At this time the barriers between Judea and Palestine were still in place and it was impossible for our school parties to be permitted to cross the Jerusalem border and visit Bethlehem, Christmas Eve or not. The closest we were able to get to Bethlehem was a vantage point some miles distant, from which we were able to glimpse no more than a dim outline of some buildings in the “Little Town” obscured by rain and mist that enshrouded them.

What a difference it was when shortly after this experience the border barriers were relaxed and I was enabled for some 30 years to use part of my annual holidays to lead pilgrimages to the Holy Land. In these I always made a point of visiting Bethlehem early on and spending some time in the “Grotto of the Nativity”, where a cross on the floor of a little cave underneath the church of the nativity is pointed out as the birthplace of Jesus.

I never fully subscribed to this claim but I have no doubt that it was in the near vicinity that Jesus was born and it was always moving and inspiring to celebrate his birth with a short prayer and Gospel reading in that very Grotto.

Not only for me personally but for many, if not most, of my groups, this was a spiritual highlight of the pilgrimage – as it remains still in the treasure house of the memories of many Bethlehem pilgrims.

How sad it is for those who, like the innkeeper of the Christmas story who – as these verses depict – refuse to allow themselves to acknowledge the wonder and love of God of which Christmas speaks.

Could I know that they were so important?
Just the two, no servants, just a workman sort of man
Leading a donkey, and his wife thereon, drooping and pale.
There was a sign, they say, a Heavenly light resplendent,
But I had not time for stars…
Amid the thousand clamours of an inn?
Of course, if I had known…
Had I known,
I would have turned the whole inn upside down.

 

May we this Christmastide be more responsive than the innkeeper.

 

In the Footsteps of Mary and Joseph