>In December 2007, I traveled with a group of Christians from around the country to Israel and Palestine. I spent the first night of the trip in Bethlehem. The bus from the airport to our hotel required passing through a checkpoint at the separation barrier, a wall that separates Israeli-occupied Palestine from Israel. The bus driver, Lufti who is an Arab Christian, was accustomed to passing through the checkpoint, which was monitored by armed Israeli soldiers.
It was late and so it was dark when I arrived at the hotel. I saw lights, Christmas lights and porch lights, as the bus drove from the checkpoint to the night’s accommodations. I remember looking out from the hotel balcony seeing a few strands of lights strung across a road and some safety lights illuminating a doorway.
I had been told that the Church of the Nativity was out in the darkness somewhere. But, the darkness hid everything holy about this town. The darkness shadowed the holiness in a town that looked as any other town in any other place.
The next morning, the morning sun shown bright upon the town. It seemed that the town was glowing. There it was…just to the left of the hotel…the Church of the Nativity. It is the place that tradition holds is the site of the stable where the Christ child was laid in the manger.
The Palestinians call the church the Church of the Awakening or the Church of the Resurrection. It is said that the empty person who comes to be filled by spiritual experiences will be left more desolate than which they came. When one comes expecting majesty, s/he feels isolation. When one comes expecting a church enveloped in holiness, s/he enters common buildings.
The journey provides the nourishment of the spirit, not the destination. I had gone with the expectation of touring the Holy sites. I had not realized that I was on a pilgrim’s journey from the manger to the cross, not a tour from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. The difference between a tour and a pilgrimage is that a pilgrim humbly accepts the invitation into a culture and allows one’s self to be transformed. Setting one’s feet to the road of the pilgrim’s journey is an act of faith.
We, each Advent, are invited to kneel at the manger in awe of the new born king. It is not an invitation to a place thousands of miles from here. It is an invitation to a spiritual pilgrimage. Can you humbly step out of the Hallmark holiday of hustle and bustle onto the way of the pilgrim? Are you humbly willing to be transformed this Christmas following the light around the Advent wreath from hope to peace to joy to love…to Christ? Are you willing to allow Christ’s light to rise and to shine in the dark places of your heart?
You don’t have to go to a Holy place for a spiritual pilgrimage. You are in a Holy place where the Presence of the Most Holy God is. You need only be open to the Spirit’s transformative work in your life.
May you walk in the light, as you are in the light,