The traditional place of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem lies in a grotto underneath the Church of the Nativity. It is a physically dark place, yet full of candles and centuries of incense, where women outside venerate images of Mary holding the baby Jesus in icons and paintings, and the doorposts are marked with the crosses of pilgrims from a thousand years ago.
Touching these symbols, one wonders about the darkness the world has seen, and still sees, just outside the door of this church in the West Bank. For what situations did these Christians over the years seek solace? What marked their lives, and their history? What darkness have they known? What darkness will we yet know?
Though I don’t put much stock in the designated spot of Christ’s birth, I like that it is a cave-like grotto sought out by crowds every day. I like that it is dark and yet marked with the light and shadow of flickering candles and lamps. I like that despite their differences, the diverse Christian traditions take turns holding their services in there. I even like that the little man who acts as a caretaker in there hurries you through between services, barking at you if you pause too long, linger more than is seemly. When you have waited an hour or more and are rushed through and up the stairs on the other side in a matter of seconds, you glimpse something of what it is to behold light in the darkness.
It’s a fleeting experience, of something bigger than ourselves, It’s a sense that what we see isn’t all there is. It’s a belief that Christ who came in a place and a time comes still, into our darkness. That’s how light is. It’s sometimes a brief glimpse in the darkness; sometimes passed on from one to another. It’s a thing of veneration and pilgrimage when we need to know there is hope. Which is always.
This Christmas, as we celebrate, lament, and worship, may we find ourselves holding candles of Christ’s light for others as they make their way through a dark world. The world may seem full of shadows, but it matters. It’s God’s creation, marred though it may be, and it is the living stage of God’s salvation plan for the world. The way is marked with the cross of pilgrim and martyr and beckons us to catch a glimpse of what they saw – the shadows of history marked out with the light of Christ. Only, don’t linger too long.
We are sent out to shine.
Wishing a peaceful Christmas and New Year to all on behalf of the MacRae Centre. Thank you for your support this year. We look forward to new opportunities for engaging faith and culture in 2018.