Being Bethlehem

I wasn’t too sure what to expect for my first Advent/Christmas in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Certainly, the slum in which I lived was devoid of any of the commercial excess.  There were no malls, no black Friday, none of the things mark the run-up to Christmas.  Occasionally, you could hear Christmas carols, traditional and tribal, float out of one of the wood sheds/tin roofed stores.  But most of the familiar western signs and markers that Christmas was coming were missing.

Still, people were getting ready to welcome Jesus into their homes.  I don’t think there was a home which did not have a nativity scene all prepared – mostly handmade. Each family had its own tradition of what figures were added as Advent moved along.  All simply awaiting the figure of the Christ child.

In Kenya the parishes are organized into jumwiya, Small Christian Communities.  That was my family for Christmas Eve.  It was a wonderful evening – lots of people, lots of singing and storytelling, and lots of food – simple but plentiful.  And I saw my first Kenyan Christmas tree.

Now lest you think that we are talking about a magnificent Douglas Fir decorated to the “nines,” recall that (first) we lived in a slum, (second) there are no Douglas Firs in Kenya, and (third) it would be more helpful to imagine Charlie Brown and his Christmas tree.  The family Christmas tree was about 2 feet high, thin, few branches and less greenery.  It was bowed over by the burden of the three or four ornaments – two of which were damaged.  Yet, it was a welcomed sight.

One part of the evening was especially memorable. There is a traditional song/dance that women perform when one of the women of the village has given birth. They dance and sing in a procession that winds through the village ending up at the house of the newborn. It is the village’s way of welcoming the child into the world, letting the child know they are part of the community. It was a song whose words greeted the child, blessed the mother, gave thanks to God for such blessings, and promised the child that there would always be a place in their home for them. But in the version for Christmas Eve, they added an additional promise for the Christ Child: that they would be his Bethlehem. That phrase has stayed with me all these years. What might the fulfillment of the promise mean? To become Bethlehem means

  • that even in the midst of being busy there is a place, a spiritual home, a spiritual center for yourself and others
  • to live a life that is described in the psalm for today, Psalm 96: a place where we live and “Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;  let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them! Then shall all the trees of the forest exult.
  • to be the place where the glory of God can shine for others
  • A place where the Good News is announced
  • A place where we remember to be not afraid
  • A place that is the beginning of  “things can be different”
  • Bethlehem is where the family gathers.

We think of Jesus as our brother and we his brothers and sisters. But borrowing a line from St. Francis of Assisi, “We are mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body through divine love and pure and sincere conscience and give birth to Him through a holy activity which must shine as an example before others.” Isn’t that an amazing line? And if we promise to always be Bethlehem for Christ, then it becomes perhaps the most challenging:  each day to let Christ be born in me. Then each day we promise that in divine love and pure conscience, we will shine before others in holy activity.

This evening/day when we celebrate the birth of the child Jesus, we celebrate the beginning of the promise of God being fulfilled: that God Himself would come, pitch his tent among us, that we might follow our Savior home.

It all begins in Bethlehem. It begins in you.

Today as you come to receive Eucharist, be like the women of my Kenyan jumwiya.  As the communion music fills this holy place come as though dancing to greet the Christ child:

  • greet the child,
  • bless the mother,
  • give thanks to God for your blessings,
  • promise the child that there will always be a place in your home for Him.
  • promise that you will  be his Bethlehem

In this Eucharist, commit to Christ that each morning you will awake to become Bethlehem that again Christ will be born in you.

Merry Christmas

1 thought on “Being Bethlehem

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