For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, Bethlehem is a very long way away. It is a city we see depicted on Christmas cards and in graphic artistry as a sleepy little town that exists quietly under a starry sky. Yet the Bible tells us that it was the center of a great gathering of people in the days preceding Jesus' arrival there. The very first Roman census was being carried out and every family that called Bethlehem their heritage were expected to journey there. So I truly doubt it was a sleepy little town at that time. In fact, the Bible tells us that there were so many people there that every room and inn and possible place of refuge was filled to capacity with those who had come there to be counted and enrolled in the census.
We are told that the Holy Family found refuge with the housing of animals and Jesus' initial cradle was a manger. We don't know if it was an out building or a cave or a hollowed out dwelling underneath the inn. All we know is that Jesus' mother gave birth amid the cattle and sheep and whatever animals were taking shelter there. I'm not sure any of us can even imagine what that must have been like. Home births are not now very common here in the United States except in poorer areas of our country. Most babies are born in some sort of medical facility that is attended by qualified personnel. The who scenario of Jesus' birth in a barn or cave or outbuilding is totally foreign to us. It is all very far away.
Yet according to the hymn writer, Frances Chesterton, it isn't very far at all. As we sing the carols and hear the story, we find ourselves transported there in our imaginations, wondering at the smells, at the sounds of the animals, the sounds of the small city all around them.
"How far is it to Bethlehem, not very far?
Shall we find the stable room lit by a star?
Can we see the little child, is He within?
If we lift the wooden latch, may we go in?
May we stroke the creatures there, oxen or sheep?
May we peek like them and see Jesus asleep?
If we touch the tiny hand, will He awake?
Will He know we've come so far just for His sake?
Bethlehem, just like all the places that Jesus visited or where he traveled, are as close as our imaginations. But the solemnity of that holy night is alive in our hearts if we have opened our minds and hearts to the glory that God brought into the world, believing that God sent his Son as a poor child, into a poor family, raised with the poor and those who barely managed to feed and clothe themsselves, so that we can never say that the Savior of the world was too haughty or too filled with richness, or looked down on those who had less than he possessed.