Three years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel and Jordan for three weeks of study. The things I experienced there can never adequately be put into words; but this week I’m reminded of a particular day that was especially profound for me.
We were visiting the ruins of the Herodium (pictured above) one of the several palaces of Herod the Great, built on the summit of a free-standing mountain about 6 miles south of Jerusalem, and 2 miles south of Bethlehem. We drove to a parking area about halfway to the top and then hiked the rest of the way up. When we reached the crest, we had a commanding view of the plains in all directions, as well as of the town of Bethlehem up on a rise to the north. Looking out over the plains around us, our professor was explaining the concept of a “rain shadow”, a weather anomaly caused by the topography and prevailing wind patterns that accounted for the dry, arid landscape that dominated most of our view.
Then she pointed out one long, contrasting swath of green that descended down toward our location from the hills around Bethlehem, and explained that this was the one area historically unaffected by the rain shadow and would therefore have served as both farm and pastureland to the people of the area during the time of Herod’s reign- much as it still does today.
We stood looking for a moment, and were just about to climb down into the ruins of the palace itself, when something dawned on me. I stopped our professor and asked “So…the pastureland below us would have been…” at which she smiled and finished my sentence saying “where the shepherds stood watching their flocks by night…yes.” As I looked out again over that green plain ascending toward Bethlehem, I suddenly felt the tremendous weight of that place. I could see in my mind the heavenly host that had filled the very sky we now gazed out into- announcing to those unimportant shepherds that a Savior had been born- for them, and for the sake of all mankind.
It’s very hard to describe now but, despite all the doubts I’d had in the past, I knew in my heart at that moment that the stories I’d heard repeated since childhood were true. Suddenly it was the cynicism and arrogance with which so many, including myself, had approached the events surrounding the life of Christ that seemed superficial and without merit or meaning. The fact is, regardless of whatever heights of sophistication we humans feel we have achieved over the centuries, the Christmas story itself remains a thing of rare perfection- transcendent and unchanged.
As we move into Holy Week, my prayer for each of us is to be able to let go of the hurriedness, the commercialism, the frustration and maybe even the loneliness and depression, that so often accompany this time of the year; and to focus instead on the quiet beauty of the world’s first Christmas- perfect both in its simplicity and in the absolute hope it continues to offer to us and to our world.
God bless each of you. I hope you have a beautiful Christmas!