In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being… What has come into being in him is life, and the life was the light of all people…1
I’m a Church nerd, so I get excited when I hear something like the prologue to the gospel of John. I live for language like this. My brain works this way. It’s beautiful to me. It’s like the best poetry or a favorite song or painting.
And it ends with words that make me want to genuflect even as I say them.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. 2
But I know I’m weird.
And this gospel is so theologically dense and so cosmic in scale that it can feel abstract, even alien on a day like today when we expect to hear about a baby in his mother’s arms.
The first few days of May 2014, Debbi and were in Bethlehem as part of a pilgrimage with Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati.
Bethlehem isn’t a fairy tale city. It’s as real as it gets.
Today the little town of Bethlehem is surrounded a twenty-five foot high, plain grey wall that Israel has built around the city to keep Palestinians in and that local graffiti artists (and Banksy) have covered the inside of the wall with images of Palestinian resistance. You have to go through a checkpoint to get in.
Bethlehem is spread out across a series of hills, and, if you squint, it’s pretty. But like all Palestinian cities, Bethlehem is poor—a world away from wealthy Israeli cities like Tel Aviv.
Christian homes have images of St. George near their doors, and Muslim homes have Arabic script, but they live close together.
Ice cream and coffee are a big deal there. I have a mug from an ice cream and coffee shop called Stars and Bucks. And right at the edge of Manger Square is a place that claims to be a REAL Starbucks, but clearly isn’t.
I remember walking through a crush of people—locals and pilgrims and tourists dressed in clothes ranging from head coverings or cassocks to suits to t-shirts and jeans—on tiny, twisting streets past crowded little shops and stalls setting fruit and baklava and icons and rosaries. I can still smell and taste the delicious and giant bagels sold by the guy with a bread and falafel cart, but also construction sites and telephone lines and Christmas decorations (even though it was May, but whatever—it’s Bethlehem!), where people were trying to make a living and be faithful in the ways that they best knew how.
One day we went to Bethlehem University and sat around three tables loaded with pita and hummus and salads of all kinds and delicious roast chicken, having lunch with Palestinian and Jordanian students from the University full of hope and grateful for relationships with people from outside of the middle east.
It was all amazing. But I want to share two image in particular today.
First: The beating heart of the city is Manger Square. Our group of pilgrims joined hundreds of other pilgrims in the Church of the Nativity, 3 entering through its main door, the Door of Humility—about four feet high so that you have to bow to enter.
We waited to enter the grotto below the church, standing shoulder to shoulder in the midst of scaffolding with pilgrims from all over the world, praying and lighting candles. When we finally entered the grotto we saw a little cave with what looked like a fireplace against one way, but was really an altar with a red frontal.
Under the altar is a marble floor lit by a number of lamps, and in the middle of that marble floor is a hole in the center of a fourteenpointed silver star with an inscription that reads (in Latin): “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.” And through that hole one can venerate, by touching and kissing it, the very spot where it is said that Jesus was born.
Debbi and I venerated it together, but with so many people waiting after us, we had to rush. So later that evening, when the pilgrim crowds were back in their rooms, I returned to the grotto. No line. Just silence. And there, with only a handful of other people, I was able to venerate the spot again—the place where, as we hear in the gospel this morning, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
And I sat down near that spot and wrote a little in my journal, and drew a little, and prayed silently in the presence of that holy spot for a bit more than an hour until they closed the church. The gospel that we heard this morning happened right there. If I could, I would have stayed there forever.
Second: The Creche is an orphanage near Bethlehem University run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul with Holy Name Hospital. The orphans there are not usually the children of parents who have died. Most are the children of unwed mothers—a dangerous thing for both the women and their children.
Sometimes the nuns shelter the women until they give birth. Sometimes babies are left on the doorstep without even a name. The nuns give the babies Muslim names because, by law, if there is even a chance their fathers were Muslim they have to be raised Muslim.
Because of what is considered their shameful origins, the children are unlikely to be adopted. It’s actually illegal for Christians to adopt them because they might baptize them, and it’s also illegal for the nuns to have them baptized or raise them as Christians, again, because their fathers may be Muslim.
The orphanage only has enough resources to raise them until they are about six or seven years old.
Like the kids in most orphanages, they crave affection. I have a number of pictures of one boy clinging desperately to Debbi while she held him in her arms. Holding them is one of the key ministries of the nuns and those who work and serve at the orphanage.
The night we visited the orphanage I wrote in my journal:
How will this play out? These kids won’t forget who loved them and who served as their mothers in their earliest years. They may never be Christians, but they are experiencing Christ’s love.
Word become flesh.
Today’s theologically dense and cosmic gospel might feel abstract, even alien on a day like today when we expect to hear about a baby in his mother’s arms.
But it ends with the Word made flesh, dwelling among us. The Word made flesh.
If you go to Bethlehem you can see the very spot where the Word became flesh in Jesus—what, in expensive church language, we call the incarnation—nearly two millennia ago.
But, you can also see the word becoming flesh today in, among other places, the community of the Creche orphanage, where, if for only a few years, abandoned children are held in loving arms.
Nothing abstract about that.
1John 1:1.3-4 John 1:14