Advent is a wonderful time of preparation and anticipation for us, but sometimes, I wonder. How did Jesus feel about becoming human and entering our world? I probably never would have considered this perspective if it weren’t for my kids and a beloved seasonal event in our community.
I admit to a heavy dose of personal bias, but one of my absolute favorite Advent activities ever took place right down the road from us at the Clear Lake United Methodist Church, where for three nights every December, they staged “A Walk Through Bethlehem,” a live depiction of Old Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. My in-laws are members of the congregation, and they got us hooked. A small tent city of shepherds greeted crowds outside the church complex, complete with a camel, flocks of goats, and a small bonfire. As you passed through the town gate, which was the entrance to the church’s family life center, you were transported into the famous little town, with straw on the floor and chickens squabbling in the corner.
Families followed a path through the Bethlehem bazaar, stopping at different stations to learn about life in Jesus’ time. There was a carpentry shop, potter, oil lamp-maker, basket weaver, and paper maker – all the Holy Land basics. I saw my father-in-law at his happiest when he took on the role of tax collector. Last year, I volunteered and got to help children grind wheat with an actual grindstone and gave out samples at the bread-seller stall, an eerie foreshadowing of my summer attempt at the keto diet. For me, being immersed in the environment surrounding Jesus’ birth was one of the best ways to refocus our family on the meaning of Christmas.
My kids, of course, were swept up in the excitement and volunteered as soon as they were old enough to be villagers. Once they were dressed up in period-appropriate street urchin wear, they were turned loose as beggars. My kids are really good at asking for money. My daughter came back with about $10 in change one night. I was torn between pride, relief that we might have found a new way to fund college, and the inevitability that we would be donating the money back to the church.
It was my son’s experience in Bethlehem that stopped us all in our tracks, though. At the end of the village was the Big Reveal, of course: Joseph and Mary in their manger with baby Jesus. My son had ditched us in the village and was making his way through solo. We couldn’t find him in the crowd. (I can totally see how Jesus was lost at the Temple.) Eventually, we found him standing next to the manger, talking to the baby Jesus in a soothing voice:
“You are going to do great things, but your life is going to be very hard. Don’t worry, though, it is all going to be worth it. You’re going to go through some really bad stuff and die, but you will come back to life. Don’t worry, you are going to save us all. It will be OK.”
Luckily, Joseph and Mary went with it, as did all the good people of Clear Lake United Methodist. What made this doubly poignant was that my son is high-functioning autistic. These are the kids who are supposed to have a hard time with social skills and empathy. Yet, he was the only child to put himself in Jesus’ swaddling clothes that evening. He really understood the sacrifice our Lord was making for us when he became human. My son was more concerned about what Jesus was facing than his own problems or needs. I think sometimes he gets this faith thing better than any of us.
Sadly, for the first time in decades, there is no “Walk Through Bethlehem” this year. Betty Flanders, the staff member who produced the event retired, and the congregation has moved on to new holiday events. I, for one, will miss it terribly. No other experience allowed me to immerse myself in Advent and the world Jesus would enter quite as well. It helped me to remember the reality of God’s sacrifice for us. It’s not just that He died for us, it’s that He became human for us, with all the joy and pain that entails. While, on the surface, my kids seem to be all about their elves and gift lists, “A Walk Through Bethlehem” showed me that they have a good grounding in the true purpose of this season.
It’s easy for us to be like the villagers of Bethlehem, going about our ordinary day, with no comprehension that a savior was being born in our midst, God was becoming human, or that we were about to be given eternal life. Or we may be like the spectators walking through Bethlehem, aware of the significance of the season, but primarily thinking of the gifts Jesus gave to us. If we really understand the gift of Bethlehem, though, we will remember that it’s not just the joyful birth of a baby but the beginning of a sacrifice that changed the world. For us, every Advent is a walk through Bethlehem to the feet of Jesus. What do you have to say to him?