Last week I was the “storyteller” for the elementary students in our Vacation Bible School. Our theme this year was “Christmas in July,” and we retold the miraculous good news of God sending His Son Jesus to be born our Savior and Lord.
On the evening that we talked about the shepherds and angels, I took in some of my pictures from our first trip to the Holy Land to show them. The kids were fascinated by the fact that I had been there, and they were eager to learn more about each site — the Church of the Nativity, the countryside around “Shepherd’s Fields,” and a modern-day cave that is still used to house sheep.
But one of the more precocious first-graders surprised and somewhat stymied me with his serious concern about the Church of the Nativity. Looking up from the shot of the Grotto of the Nativity with its marble-enclosed silver star, he frowned and asked “Why did people do that? Why did they cover up the place that Jesus was born?”
“Out of the mouths of babes,” I thought to myself as I tried to explain that building impressive — and highly decorative — monuments was a way that earlier Christians honored Jesus’ birth, life and death. But he also reminded me that older and wiser Christians have also shared those same kind of feelings.
For example, an online article on the See The Holy Land website tells of St. Jerome’s anguish when a silver manger was installed in the grotto of the original 4th Century church. And E. M. Blaiklock, a Christian scholar from New Zealand, is still renowned decades after his death for his unfavorable description of the cave as “hung and cluttered with all the tinsel of men’s devotions.”
I have to admit that the “tinsel” has never gotten in the way for me spiritually. As I posted earlier about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I am deeply moved to know that I am standing, kneeling or sitting in places where devoted pilgrims have gone before me. Whether its the equally marble-encrusted Church of the Pater Noster (commemorating Jesus’ teaching of the Lord’s Prayer), or the modern Church of All Nations (honoring His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane), or the simply designed Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, I am able to commune with my Lord through the beauty of the structure and its art.
But knowing that this isn’t the case for many — especially “first-timers” — Randy and I are also careful to balance our hosted pilgrimage with sites that are more au naturel. For example, we will: imagine the pagan idols at Banias, the rocky spot where Jesus asked “Who do you say I am?” and praised Peter (the Rock) for his budding faith; listen to a teacher while sitting on the steps outside the Temple Mount where Jesus probably taught his disciples; pray and sing in what might have been the dungeon where Jesus spent his final night before the crucifixion; and, worship Sunday morning in a boat on the Sea of Galilee.
And if you are thinking of going with us in March, please remember that everything you see and every site you experience will be thoroughly explained by an experienced Christian guide, with a more relaxed pace that will allow you the time to get in touch with the “spiritual reality” of each place. Add to that three evening Bible Studies that correspond to the chronology and geography of Jesus life, and I promise you an unforgettable trip that will make the Bible and your faith come alive!