By Elizabeth Geitz
The now familiar Christmas story in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” began not with song and light, but in darkness in the town of Bethlehem. Deep, piercing darkness.
For God’s chosen people were a conquered people the year Jesus was born. Roman occupiers had imposed a despised universal taxation on the Jewish people, and Jewish peasants had lost their homes and land. There was no calm in Israel, only conflict and tension. It was a land torn apart by oppression, persecution, and terror.
Yet on that night in a cold, dark cave used to shelter shepherds and sheep from the elements, a frightened young woman with her husband by her side gave birth to her first child.
They named him Jesus. The One who Christians would hail as the Messiah, God incarnate. The One who Jews and Muslims would hail as a Prophet. This tiny, squirming Jewish babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.
His mother, Mary, laid him in a manger – not a wooden manger, as often depicted, but a limestone trough used to feed and water sheep in the depths of the sheltering cave.
As a pilgrim on a tour of the Holy Land last December, I stood inside a similar cave in Tekoa near Bethlehem, gazing at a similar stone trough. After a meditation, the thirty other pilgrims and I carefully climbed out of the cave and boarded a bus bound for Bethlehem to see the cave where Jesus is reported to have been born.
Oh, how I wish it were still just a simple cave like the one in Tekoa. Instead, in the 6th century a large Greek Orthodox Church was built over it, now filled with icons and candles and hanging lamps, masking the very beauty and simplicity of Jesus’ humble, lowly birth.
With heads covered, each pilgrim walked down the well-worn stone steps to touch the small piece of exposed stone cave, now just below an altar. To kneel and touch and pray and hope that this year, something might change. Something might be different in this land still torn apart by darkness.
After kneeling one by one, we stood together and sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as tears rolled down our cheeks. Then in silence we walked outside the large stone Church of the Nativity. Then boarding our bus, we headed toward Jerusalem filled with emotion and memories to last a lifetime.
Soon the bus suddenly stopped and we found ourselves waiting, waiting, waiting . . . at the Israeli wall checkpoint that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Our prayers filled the air as we sat with passports out waiting for armed soldiers to board our bus.
There’s a different kind of waiting in the Holy Land during a season that could be filled with expectant joy. Waiting for hours to get through checkpoints. Waiting for sons and daughters, husbands and wives to return from war. Waiting for the wall to come down. Waiting for families to reunite. Waiting for peace that never comes.
And yes, waiting for the Prince of Peace to be born anew. Waiting for something to change, something to shift this season. The season of Christmas. The season of Hanukkah. The season of unexpected light piercing the darkness that is all around.
Waiting, waiting, waiting.
Elizabeth Geitz is an Episcopal priest and the author of six books, including the upcoming * I Am That Child: Changing Hearts and Changing the World *about her journey to a Cameroonian orphanage. Visit her at www.elizabethgeitz.com.