Disappointed in Bethlehem: Then and Now

The birthplace of Jesus, as it appears today inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine.  Courtesy Wikipedia.
The birthplace of Jesus, as it appears today inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The Christmas season is upon us.  Of course, the world thinks Christmas is already over; a few more sales and the shelves will be making way for Valentine’s Day.  For many folks, Christmas is a disappointment: we don’t get the gifts we want or don’t get to see all the people we want.  On a more serious note, many of us have Christmases whose joy is broken by addiction, grief, anger, or loss.  Christmas comes around each year but no joy ever does.

I take comfort in knowing Bethlehem has always been a disappointment.  Jews, captive under Roman rule, were disappointed when the Messiah turned out to be a humble baby born to a carpenter’s family, rather than the royal conqueror they had expected.  Pagans were disappointed to hear this little sect, based on a supposed miracle in Bethlehem, was pathetic enough to worship a peasant who came from no place special and died in humiliation on a cross.

Today, Bethlehem is still a disappointment.  I’ve visited the Church of the Nativity twice, and both times – though grateful for the experience – I was struck by the ugliness of the place and, especially, the rudeness of the resident monks.  I resonate with Annie Dillard’s observation:

“Any patch of ground anywhere smacks more of God’s presence on earth, to me, than did this marble grotto. The ugliness of the blunt and bumpy silver start impressed me. The bathetic pomp of the heavy, tasseled brocades, the marble, the censers hanging from chains, the embroidered antependium, the aspergillum, the crosiers the ornate lamps – some human’s idea of elegance – bespoke grand comedy, too, that God put with it. And why should he not? Things here on earth get a whole lot worse than bad taste.”

I am often disappointed by what we do with Bethlehem.  Even the church, whose life is based on that dingy miracle outside of Jerusalem, too often turns Bethlehem into something cute, something tame and touching and saccharin.  But the Incarnation – that’s the name we give to God’s invasion of the world in Bethlehem – was never meant to be.

So perhaps Bethlehem has always been a disappointment, and might always will be.  There is hardly a fitting response to such a strange happening.  We do our best with smoky marble and kitschy plays, but our best is still ugly.

Thankfully, God hangs with us anyway – with all those who are disappointed in, and all those who add to the disappointment of – this place, this miracle, this mystery that is Bethlehem.  Dillard concludes her above observation with this line from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:

“Every day, the glory is ready to emerge from its debasement.”

May the true glory of Bethlehem be manifest in us and in our communities, and may God continue to bear with us – every day.

watch for the light

Source: “Bethlehem,” by Annie Dillard, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (New York: Orbis 2001), 220.

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