By David Carlson
There is something both surprising and fitting about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Of course, no one can be sure of the precise location of Jesus’ birth, but this church has been the site where Christians and others have worshiped the Christmas event for millennia.
What is so fitting about this church is its entryway, which is so small and narrow that pilgrims and visitors must bow down to enter. The entry was designed this way to prohibit people from riding their horses or donkeys into the church and thereby desecrating the site. But what is so stunning about this entryway is not its historical past but the psychological and spiritual wisdom of bowing low to meet the Christ child.
Tradition says that Jesus was born in an enclosure for farm animals, perhaps a cave or stall. If so, the entrance to the cave would have also demanded those entering to bow down. It seems as if the Christmas story makes one demand on those of us who want to experience Christmas.
That demand is not, it seems, that we buy gifts for those who will buy gifts for us — as if Christmas is a time of trading. Rather, the Christmas story demands we approach the holy day with humility.
Humility can pose a challenge, if not a problem, for us Christians who are blessed to have been born into a first-world country. Most of us, by the world’s standards, are rich, even if we don’t feel that way. We set up our manger scenes in front of our homes and churches without pondering if Jesus, could he be born in our day, would choose this spot to enter our world.
When we plop the Christmas story in the midst of our bounty as a nation, we forget that all the players in the first Christmas had to make a journey. Christmas didn’t come to them; they had to journey to find it. Joseph and Mary must journey to Bethlehem. The shepherds must journey from their fields to the cave. The wise men must journey from the East. For Christians, Jesus journeys from heaven to earth.
The season leading up to Christmas for Christians is called Advent. That’s a word quite close to another word — adventure. Christmas calls Christians to get ready for an adventure, to begin a journey to find, in our hearts and through our wallets, where Jesus is being born this year.
The door of the church in Bethlehem provides us a map for the journey. It is as if the Christmas card sent out by Jesus reads like this: “If you’re looking for me this Christmas, you’ll find me in a place that makes two demands: that you bow down and that you leave a gift without expecting one in return.”
We don’t have to look very far. Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands are no longer featured in the news cycle, but they remain devastated by the hurricanes that hit them. Many lost everything, and some are literally living in caves and make-do huts.
Others in our country are facing deportation to nations they’ve never known. They are living in another kind of cave, hiding and waiting for a knock on the door. Still others will struggle this Christmas season because of the opioid addiction of friends and family. That’s a very dark cave.
Christmas quite appropriately is a season of light in the darkest time of year. The ancient scriptures promised a time in the future when “those in darkness would see a great light,” and Christians see this fulfilled in the Christmas story.
Yes, there is a lot of darkness in our nation and world. But if we bow down to serve those caught in the darkness, we’re promised to find a gift waiting for us — a holy child.
Franklin resident David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.