When I went to Israel in 2018, Bethlehem was not a highlight, if I am being honest. It was packed wall to wall with people. The Church of the Nativity felt like a line at Disney World, only without a ride at the end. Our guide gestured over to the steps you could descend to touch the fourteen pointed silver star in the floor, marking the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth. But it would have been a two hour wait to get down there, for little more than a few seconds.
This year, I almost pulled out of the trip. But what convinced me to hang in there was when the trip coordinator said that because of the pandemic, it would be far less crowded at the sites. And I thought, “I’ll go again, if it means I can spend more time at the church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
And, oh my God, what a difference. I say that in complete reverence. We walked into the Church, and the feeling of awe and reverence and history and holiness and nearly two millennia of prayers lifted up in this place was very nearly tangible.
I put my hand on the star in the floor. I ran my hand across the rough stone above me. I descended the steps toward the room in which St Jerome first translated the Vulgate from the Greek and Hebrew.
Listen, I know we Protestants are skeptical about whether any of these are the “actual” places where the events took place. And I know it can be hard for a lot of people to cut through the layers of tradition and trappings. And in any other year, I probably would have been ok with skipping Bethlehem altogether.
But when I walked through the tiny, narrow door into a church that was completely empty, my spirit soared to the ceiling.
And Lord Jesus, I believed.