Of all our Christmas decorations the one I love the most is a hand carved nativity scene made out of olive wood. I bought it in December, 28 years ago, in Bethlehem. The Palestinian shopkeeper, when he discovered I was from Australia, took me to the back of his store and introduced me to his father, a very old man who told me how he had watched Australian soldiers drive the Turks out of those hills, just before Christmas in 1917. So they sold me the nativity set at what they said was a discounted price that I couldn’t refuse – although I suspect they did quite well out of it. But I love it anyway. It reminds me of one of the most memorable Christmas experiences I’ve ever had.
Less than two hundred metres away stood the Church of the Nativity, said to have been built on the site where Jesus was born. When the Roman Emperor Constantine came to the throne and ended 3 centuries of persecution of Christians, he sent his mother Helena, who was a British princess and a Christian, to the Holy Land to discover the sites where Jesus had been born and died, so that he could build churches on those sites. The Church of the Nativity is one of the results.
I went inside and made my way to a spot where a low doorway opens onto stone steps leading down into a crypt. That crypt was originally a cave over which Helena’s church was built. It was the stable where local belief said Jesus had been born. The ceiling is hung with beautiful lamps and at one end of it there is a kind of stone niche in the rock wall, with sixteen silver lamps hanging over it lighting a silver star that has the inscription, “Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.”
When I got there I waited for the other people to leave so that I could sit quietly with my own thoughts, but they were soon interrupted by the sound of more people clattering down the stone steps. It was a family group with everyone from the old grandparents to little children. At first I felt annoyed that my moment of quietness had been taken away. By their clothes I could tell they were not well-off, and listening to their voices I guessed they were from Greece. They weren’t the sort of people who would take regular overseas holidays, and I suspected that they had probably saved for a lifetime to bring the whole family on this one visit to the place of Jesus’ birth, just before Christmas.
When they got to the bottom of the steps they saw the little grotto and knelt before it in silence. I could just see the tears streaming down their cheeks and the look of wonder and joy on their faces. Then they began to pray quietly and softly sang some sort of hymn. Then, after a few minutes they got up and left in silence, their faces shining with joy. And I remember thinking to myself that I’d gladly trade every Christmas gift I’ve ever had for one minute of the joy and wonder that had been theirs.
It was almost like seeing the poor shepherds coming to worship the baby Jesus after the angels had told them of his birth; and it reminds me of that wonderful line from the Christmas Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem: ‘Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.’