Externals change, essence endures

It’s almost time for New Year’s resolutions, predictions, and plans. But for today, let’s just reflect a little. Sip your favourite brew, relax, and enjoy a holiday.
This year, I experienced a part of Christmas early: in late September, I went on a tour to Israel.
Our group of 16 spent the first week in Nazareth, where Jesus lived as a boy. We worked on restoring the hillside of the original Nazareth Village, near the heart of a busy city of 70,000.
That hillside is being re-terraced, with vineyards and an original wine press, olive trees, a sheepfold, several first-century houses, and a small synagogue.
After our week’s work, we got to experience the “parable walk.” A Russian-born Messianic Jew led us through the interpretive centre and told us six of Jesus’ parables as we walked the 12-acre site.
The young man’s enthusiastic Christian witness was very moving.
The first-century way of life that was being demonstrated show that general living conditions back then were squalid compared to ours. Yet the quality of philosophical and religious thought generated and recorded so long ago lasts and sets the highest standards for us today.
During our second week, we stayed in a Jerusalem hotel, just outside the old city wall. We were fortunate to be allowed to see nearly all the sites we had hoped to see. Bethlehem was among those.
A part of the magic of my childhood Christmases had always been the baby in the manger in a stable. How differently I had imagined the scene from what I saw!
Of course, the present reality is far removed from Mary and Joseph’s time. Bethlehem is now a busy suburb of Jerusalem, and Manger Square is like a parking lot central to its mall.
At one end is a church, built over Jesus’ birthplace. And that was not a stable but a cave.
We found out that The Inn would have been a one-room building about the size of your living room. Travellers bedded down on the floor side by side. The innkeeper could only afford Mary the privacy she needed by sending her to the cave that sheltered the animals.
We sang “Silent Night” after a Portuguese group held a mass in the small underground space that marks Jesus’ birthplace. A Latin American group waited behind us on the steps.
I felt momentarily connected in a worldwide fellowship of faith and hope.
Later, we were told that Jesus wasn’t born in December but in February or March. The sheep would only be in the fields after the rainy season had restored the grass on the hillsides.
We went there, and again found caves where the shepherds protected their flocks against wild animals at night.
The original fields are still an open area–though small now–with access through a grove of trees. The sky was beautiful and I could easily imagine a guiding star. We sang again, about shepherds in the fields being awed by the angels’ message.
The experience may well have been as strange to them as its contemplation is to us in 2000.
In spite of September heat, busy cityscapes instead of gentle countrysides, and having my childhood images shattered, I felt the joy and reverence that’s always been a big part of Christmas for me.
As we celebrate the season, I wish you that same spirit, and a peaceful and relaxing holiday as well.

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