O little town of Bethlehem
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
It’s a bit difficult being a vicar and not particularly liking Christmas carols! I think it’s because we start singing them and hearing them so soon – I’m waiting for the first play on the radio any day now – that by the time we get to Christmas I’ve generally had enough! In spite of my general ambivalence I do have my favourite though and it’s ‘O little town of Bethlehem’. I’m not really sure why; maybe it’s because I find the words moving, maybe it’s because the tune isn’t too high so it’s always one I feel I can sing with gusto or maybe it’s because Cliff Richard did a cover version and it was one of the first records I bought!
The words of the carol capture for us the image of the birth-place of Christ; we erect cribs and our children perform in Nativity plays that bring to life the scene where Mary and Joseph arrive at the inn and, finding no room, create a bed amongst the animals in the stable. But as much as I love this carol, I am also very aware of the fact that the reality of life in Bethlehem couldn’t be more different. It is not just a symbolic place in the Christian story, but a real and vibrant city dependant on tourism. It is a city in a troubled land, the ‘separation wall’ cutting it off from neighbouring Jerusalem.
In September 2019 I have been asked to co-lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I jumped at the opportunity because I have always wanted to visit the places I have heard about for so many years, to add sight and sound to the stories and images. I’m sure that reading the Gospels will never seems the same and whilst a large part of the trip will focus in and around Jerusalem, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land wouldn’t be complete without visiting Nazareth and Bethlehem. What makes pilgrimage special though, is that it’s not just about visiting sites of historical interest. Bethlehem in the 1st century wasn’t an easy place to be and 21st Bethlehem is no different; of course there will be a visit to Manger Square, the Grotto of the Nativity and the Shepherds’ Fields but we will also see the Banksy Museum in the Walled Off Hotel and visit the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans (a non-profit organisation committed to promoting and celebrating traditional Palestinian arts and culture). To have the opportunity to meet the ‘living stones’, the local Palestinian and Israeli Christians who are the on-going living church in the region, is humbling.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas once again, as we sing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, we pray for all those living in dangerous and difficult situations, all those who will struggle to experience peace; we give thanks for all that is good and for the Light that continues to shine in the darkness. And if you would like the opportunity to experience something of the reality of the Holy Land, please do contact me.
Wishing you a peaceful and blessed Christmas, Rev’d Jane