I’ve traveled to Israel many times. In addition of living in Jerusalem for one year (now 30 years ago, which I can’t believe), I’ve led 24 trips. If a person comes up to me and asks if I ever get tired of traveling to Israel with groups, I simply respectfully smile and say, “No, not yet.” I suspect I will never get tired of it. One of the reasons why “no, not yet” will be my answer until the day I die is experiences such as singing in the caves of Bethlehem.
With the exception of maybe one or two times back in the early 2000s (during the height of the Intafada when Bethlehem was off limits), every tour I lead takes us to Bethlehem. While the Church of Nativity is a highlight for some (OK, maybe only a few because of the “tradition” factor), the memorable “Bethlehem experience” is singing Christmas carols together in one of the caves of the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour, the Arab village outside of Bethlehem proper today.
Once again on this last tour, despite being a smaller group, we sounded pretty terrific as we blended our voices in worship of Christ’s birth as we sang the first verse of several carols.
Gathered in one of these caves (“stables”) gives us the feel of what it must have been like in Jesus’ day. Caves we typically used as “shelters” for shepherds. One can easily picture that it as in one of these caves where Joseph and Mary sought refuge. Although making the cave smell like a barn as we know it today, at least the presence of animals (sheep, goats, cattle) would have added warmth to the scene.
Once Jesus was born, the text tells us that he was placed in a “manger” while wrapped in “swaddling clothes.” Unlike our nativity scenes that depict the manger as a wooden cradle of some kind, the manger in the Luke 2 story was no doubt a stone feeding trough (100’s of them have been found in Israel). The swaddling clothes were used by shepherds to wash newly-born lambs as well as to wrap the dead. How interesting it is to read that the perfect lamb of God wrapped here in the cave at His birth but also would eventually be wrapped in the same cloth upon His death.
It doesn’t matter the month, for I think Christmas carols were meant to be sung all year long. After all, carols inspire us to worship the One born in the little town of Bethlehem.