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Looking past distractions to remember what matters most at Christmas

Lamps near the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
By on December 1, 2022
Photography: 
DOUG MORRIS

In December, when our minds stretch to imagine the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, be mindful of the many cultural layers that have been placed upon the Christmas story—as well as the many unrealistic and stressful expectations that have been layered onto how we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation.

For most of us, Christmas has become a westernized story, with a chubby blond baby, a tall, stoic Joseph, and a milk-skinned Mary, all gathered into a wooden stable near soft grassy fields. Parts of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are often merged together on seasonal cards to show shepherds in medieval European garb and three exotic kings converging at the same time before a rustic timber stable—creating a Christmas mash-up which bears little resemblance to biblical, ethnographic, or archeological accounts. 

These accounts tell us that Jesus was likely born in a stone grotto or cave, surrounded by rocky, earthen fields, with sparse tufts of deep green vegetation, to Middle-Eastern people with black hair, brown skin, and dark eyes. 

If you visit Bethlehem today, a walk through the bullet-pocked buildings which surround the general location of Jesus’ birth doesn’t conjure up happy Christmas scenes—even archaeologically, ethnographically, or biblically accurate ones! As you eventually wind your way into and through interconnected, overlapping churches, very little feels familiar. Everything is enclosed, with stone floors which have been worn and polished by generations of pilgrims, and walls made dark by the smoke of thousands of candles. Not to mention the riot of oriental lamps with decorations on them, as you can see in the photograph that accompanies this column. 

When you finally come near to the sacred site, there is usually a long queue before you are able climb down a short flight of steep stairs and through a narrow portal. You wait a bit longer in a short, crowded vestibule and then proceed into a small, dimly lit cave. It takes a moment to realize that you now stand in the site revered by countless pilgrims as the place where Mary gave birth to the Christchild: the Grotto of the Nativity.

It is at first hard to connect this congested, tapestrywalled, lamp-lit place with anything close to the traditional images of Christmas you have carried in your mind for years—and the sensation is not entirely comfortable. But as you gaze at the small, ornate altar which stands above the sacred spot, a sense of holy peace and reverence begins to grow in you; and when everyone starts to sing Away in a Manger, you join in, and the feeling of disconnect between what you had expected and what you are seeing and feeling falls away completely. Your heart begins to fill with the eternally familiar warmth of Christ.

When it is your turn to kneel down at the altar, you look across a marble surface into a small opening set in an intricately embossed silver star that lies over the spot where the infant Jesus is believed to have been born—you feel compelled to follow the tradition of countless pilgrims, and you allow your hand to reach in and touch the ancient, smooth stone. 

In the close comfort of the Grotto of the Nativity, you remember what matters most as we celebrate Christmas: the God of all time and space came to us in love and great gentleness, and in simplicity, calling us to find our truest selves by following the way of Jesus. Anything layered onto this, be it nostalgic scenes or the stressful expectations we place on ourselves and others at this time of year, are unnecessary distractions.

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