Oh the Places You’ll Go: Bethlehem & Greccio

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? It was the hometown of Jesus’ famous ancestor, Israel’s first great king, David. It’s just out in the country from the big capital city of Jerusalem – sort of God’s typical joke on powerful insiders, using the diminutive, unlikely outsiders. The village’s name means “house of bread,” so fitting – maybe better than Montezuma or Schenectady. Bethlehem is situated at the crossroads of the continents, not playing favorites, and strategically perched to fan out to all people.

Driving into Bethlehem today is harrowing. Instead of cruising under strung colored lights and past pretty decorated trees, you cower a bit under heavily armed guard towers, through checkpoints with rifle-toting soldiers. A tall thick way dressed with barbed wire reveals intense human fears, and our inability to make and keep peace. There are slum-like refugee camps – fitting somehow for the birthplace of Jesus, whose family was immediately on the run, but grievous just the same. Souvenir shops and street hawkers, haggling over little wooden holy trinkets, underline how we delight in making profound religious truths cute and manageable.

Into such a place, plagued by wars, with various invaders jockeying for territory, Jesus came. Madeleine L’Engle wrote that that was “no time for a child to be born” (or place!), “with the earth betrayed by war and hate… in a land in the crushing grip of Rome; honor and truth were trampled by scorn – yet here did the Savior make his home. The inn is full on planet earth, yet Love still takes the risk of birth.” Far from sweet, God’s answer to the crushing powers, to the fear and armed guards, and all the kitsch is a small, vulnerable child who can’t talk. He can only cry, and coo. He can’t be feared or co-opted. He can only be loved, and embraced tenderly.

Francis of Assisi intuited all this before anyone else. He asked a friend in the village of Greccio to create history’s first manger scene: a straw crib, oxen, donkeys, and an image of the infant Jesus. The townspeople gathered on Christmas Eve, bearing torches. The friars sang hymns, medieval carols – and Francis preached. Listeners said his voice sounded like the bleating of a lamb.

He picked up the infant figure, held it in his arms, and some said they thought they saw the child come to life. Francis’s first biographer captured the moment in an elegant phrase: “Out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.” Before we exhale a sentimental sigh, notice the political weight of the manger scene:  Crusaders were at that very moment campaigning to crush those who occupied the Holy Land; they wanted to control Bethlehem militarily.  But since Bethlehem now can be anywhere, even in Italy, then there is no longer any need to travel to the Holy Land to fight for it.

And so all our manger scenes, in your den or front yard, make the original O Little Town of Bethlehem virtually present. Perfect love casts out fear – and any desire to control anybody else. At Greccio today, there is perhaps the world’s greatest collection of nativity sets / manger scenes – from every culture, all over the world. Some are gorgeous. Some are laughably tacky. Aren’t we all always both? Where is the manger right now? Since it was originally a stone feeding trough that served as Jesus’ crib, any place people hunger for hope, love and purpose: there’s the manger. The swaddling clothes right now? God’s Word (as Martin Luther loved to say), the Bible but all glimpses and words about God’s presence among us.

And who is Mary right now? Not just the one who trudged wearily into Bethlehem to labor in a cow stall, and not all the Marys of paintings, sculptures, anthems and stained glass. Mary? That would be me, and you, and our church, right now, as 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart explained: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us.” And in Bethlehem. And Greccio. And wherever you are reading this. And in all the broken, crushing places, trampled by hate.