But Where is the Stable?
By Shannon Bell
Bethlehem, West Bank. May 2023. We’re going to see where they believe Jesus was born. We’ll get to see the stable! That was the chatter as our tour bus of 34 Canadians rolled into the town of Bethlehem. Once off the bus, we began to see the busy streets filled with with shops. Stars & Buck Cafe. John The Baptist Souvenir Shop. Christmas Bells Restaurant.
And then we arrived at the Church of the Nativity expecting to see a lowly cave for animals where our Lord was born in humility and quietness. What we found instead was a huge cathedral of multiple denominations with room after room of ornate decorations of gold, precious metals and stones, art, statues and marble.
It was jarring, opulent and seemed in so many ways the opposite of the picture that the scripture gives us of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. To top it all off, the line to go down into the lower level where the stable was thought to be was several hours long and we were unable to wait and make that part of the pilgrimage. Many in our group were deeply disappointed as seeing where Jesus was born was to be a highlight for them.
I didn’t much enjoy walking through all the huge rooms of mosaics, statues, gold, silver and bronze items and marble pillars. In the words of Shania Twain, “that don’t impress me much.”
We went on to see a humble cave church cut out of the rock with a blackened ceiling from centuries of fires for warmth and cooking. It was a simple gathering place to remember the shepherds at the edge of the fields where those blessed animal caregivers were told the great news by a host from heaven. We looked out over those fields imagining the wonder of that night and how it must have shocked, moved and changed those simple men for the rest of their lives. This seemed much closer to the heart of the story than the great cathedral.
Two thousand years later, here we are approaching that wonderful celebration of the Almighty becoming a human baby, God in human flesh, incarnation and don’t we see the same conflict of culture? I am not saying that all our Christmas traditions and celebrations are bad. It was understandable that hundreds of years ago believers wanted to somehow celebrate and honour the place of Jesus’ birth and church buildings began to spring up. But don’t we often get so enthused to do as much as we can to mark the place or the occasion that we end up obscuring it completely? Like the souvenir shops packed into the streets of Bethlehem and the majestic show of wealth in the cathedral, in the end it means that we don’t get to go to the stable and see the humble birthplace of our Lord. How much of the way we celebrate Christmas gets in the way of really seeing the simplicity of the incarnation. Jesus was born in an animal shelter in the little town of Bethlehem, not in the centre of wealth and power in Jerusalem.
We went away disappointed. Don’t move through this Advent and Christmas season disappointed because you didn’t really get to see the stable, the simple truth of God with us because your time, energy and resources are so tied up with all the traditions, gifts, busyness and bustle that have grown over the years. So much of what we do has its roots in a desire to honour and celebrate Jesus, but it has gotten away from us and become something of its own that no longer points us to the babe in the manger. Linger at the stable this year. Sit beside the manger in simplicity, marveling at the miracle of the incarnation. Let go of the trappings, the wealth, the activities and make space to truly see the love of God extended to you in the birth of our Saviour. Don’t miss it and be disappointed because the external stuff got in the way. Find the stable. It is there when you look for it.