What do we call Jesus?

We were set an interesting question first thing this morning when, in preparation for the group visiting Bethlehem, we had an introductory lecture on the birth narratives that we find in Matthew and Luke and what the members of the course would find in the city of his birth. The question was not so much how do you reconcile the Matthean and the Lucan accounts of the nativity but how much we actually know about Jesus. ‘If you were asked to fill in a birth or death certificate for Jesus how much do you, do we, actually know?’

birth-certificate
Not easy to complete

 

It was a good question.  First name – Jesus. Surname ….. well, it’s not Christ, uum, not sure … Barjospeh? Well no, that would never do. Barabbas? Well we saw the confusions around that name in a former blog!  Leave it blank.  Mother – Mary.  Father – back to the questions again.  Place of residence of the parents – well Matthew says Bethlehem, Luke says Nazareth.  Place of Birth – we’re back on course, Bethlehem, we all know that.  This form requires two witnesses with home addresses.  Well, some Magi came according to Matthew, but they were strangers and deliberately left no forwarding address so Herod couldn’t trace them.  Luke mentions shepherds but they’re definitely of no fixed abode.  Angels are unreliable witnesses as far as form filling is concerned.  Perhaps old Simeon and Anna will do – and the address for Anna ‘The Temple, Jerusalem’ could not be better, the best postcode in town.

I’m being facetious but only to make the point.  We know few ‘facts’ about Jesus and the facts we do know are disputed and depend on faith. Do I go with Matthew who tells us that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem or with Luke’s Nazareth based story? Do I go with an annunciation to Joseph in Matthew or to Mary in Luke? Do I go with a story of persecution and slaughter that mirrors the actions of Pharaoh wanting to kill all the Hebrew boys as Matthew tells it or one of welcome in the Temple as Luke tells it?

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The whole cast on stage

 

Of course, in just a few weeks time as we watch children perform nativity plays in our schools and churches, as we go to Nine Lessons and Carols in our cathedrals and parish churches, we know that we deal with the complications by ignoring them and just squashing everything together.  The shepherds will trip over the kings in the crib scene even though their paths never crossed. We cope with it because we know that the story has a deeper message that does not simply involve the ‘facts’ with which a form could be completed.

In fact I didn’t go with the group to Bethlehem and nor did Canon Wendy Robins, the Bishop’s Press Officer for Southwark.  Instead we went into the West Bank to visit two projects, to find out more and see how we might support them.  One, Jeel al Amal in Bethany, I had visited many times before.  The other, Al-Shurooq School for the Blind, in Beit Jala, a village on the edge of Bethlehem, was new to me.

In both of these we saw Jesus at work, in action, through those who believe in his name.  Both schools have Christian foundations but serve the whole community regardless of faith, ethnicity, or gender.  Both serve children who have severe needs – at Jeel children who are orphans or have endured terrible domestic problems; at Al-Shurooq those with no or little sight and some with multiple physical and mental needs. In both tremendous work is being done by Christians for the whole community.

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The question they ask at Jeel al Amal

 

We heard of a little boy, deaf-blind, who was living in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Jericho.  His family didn’t know how to care for him – so they didn’t. He was found wandering, filthy, no shoes and the school was able to take him in.  He is now beginning to communicate and gaining confidence.  He goes back to his family at weekends who are better able to cope with him as a fieldworker is supporting them.  He returns to school, smart and washed and ready for the week.

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It says it all

 

A little boy came to meet me, blind and with some learning difficulties.  He hugged me and smelt me so that he could recognise me again, stroked my arms as Isaac did with Jacob and his brother Esau.  It was so poignant and resonant with the scriptures. By this stage Isaac was blind and when the younger son, Jacob, eager to deceive his father and gain his elder brother’s blessing, dressed his arms in goat skin and himself in his brother’s clothes and approached his father, we’re told that the patriarch’s response was this.

So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, ‘The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau …Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. (Genesis 27.22, 27)

The boy tried to say my name.  It was extremely moving.

The fact I know about Jesus is not what his surname was, nor the precise details of his birth, but that those who follow him do the work that he did and bring his light into darkness, his life to where death stalks, his truth where lies are powerful, his justice where injustice stunts lives, his riches where there is poverty. I know Jesus when I see him and I saw him today.

Jesus, my Lord,
bless those who in your name
proclaim good news to the poor
freedom for the prisoners
recovery of sight for the blind
and set the oppressed free.
Amen.

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Forever Christmas

You only have to mention Bethlehem and our minds are instantly filled with images. So many cards we have received over the years, so many carols we have sung, so many nativity plays we have seen, so many cribs we have visited. And though we know the cross and Calvary just as well, yet the childlike nature of the city of Jesus’ birth, as opposed to his death, holds a special place in our hearts.  Begin to walk around the city and you find yourselves in Manger Square, of course, but also Star Street, Shepherds Street, Orient Star Street (don’t get the two confused) and Milk Grotto Street. It is all about Christmas.

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Nothing like this!

 

I decided that after two weeks in Jerusalem a break would be good, just 24 hours that would give me another more in-depth experience, another place to seek the hidden and holy. So thanks to the generosity again of Albina Tours in Jerusalem and the Manger Square Hotel here in Bethlehem I have just over a day here.  That is a lot longer than you normally get as a pilgrim.  Normally you visit the Shepherds Fields in Beit Sahour, a village below Bethlehem which stands high on a hill, and then you make your way to the Church of the Holy Nativity and St Catherine’s which stands alongside it.  But often there is little time to do much else.

Now, if you arrive in Bethlehem for the first time, you may be disappointed to see that the Church of the Nativity is covered with scaffolding, some outside but most of it inside, as much needed restoration takes place.  It will be wonderful when it is completed, I’m sure, but at the moment it’s a building site.  Pilgrims can’t enter by the Door of Humility, the door blocked to stop people riding in on horseback but which means that even I have to stoop to enter.  You now have to go in via the courtyard in front of St Catherine’s.  As I went through there was a long queue into the Church of the Nativity so I decided to go into St Catherine’s instead.  As I did the clock struck 12 noon and that meant that I was just in time for the daily procession of the Franciscans.  I joined the procession.

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The procession in the Grotto

 

The route of the procession goes from the Latin church into the Orthodox and down what normally serve as the exit steps from the Grotto of the Nativity.  Pilgrims in the procession carry candles and are singing as the descent is made.  There are three stations in the grotto – at the Star of Bethlehem which is the place of the birth, the Chapel of the Manger and the Altar of the Adoration of the Magi. At each station we sang and prayed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Gloria.  We sang Adeste fidelis (O come, all ye faithful) and each holy place was censed and honoured.  We then left the grotto by the door at the back which leads through to the caves in which St Jerome lived.  There we had a final station and received a blessing.  It was a joy and so much better than the rushed and often prayer-less visits I have made in the past.

However, I had seen all of this before and was heading for somewhere which was new to me.  I had heard that in the street I have mentioned already, Milk Grotto Street, there is (unsurprisingly) the Milk Grotto. The site has been important to Christians probably since the 4th but definitely since the 11th centuries.  What it commemorates is the Holy Family finding a place of refuge as Herod began the slaughter of the innocents. Mary and Joseph stopped at this cave with the child Jesus on their way to Egypt.  Here Mary fed her child and a drop of milk fell from her breast and the stone of the cave turned white.  It’s a place similar to the wonderful chapel of Our Lady at Ma’loula in northern Syria. There Christian and Muslim women used to pray where the miraculous icon was kept, if they were wanting a child.  Sadly, I doubt whether that is happening now.  At the Milk Grotto , Muslim and Christian women come because they believe scrapings of the stone can help them raise their children to be healthy.  People are now discouraged to remove stone but encouraged to pray.

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The beautiful Milk Grotto

 

The church is beautiful, you enter by steps into the cave which has an amazing tranquillity about it, as soothing as a mother feeding her child. But go behind the cave chapel and there is something which, for me was even more wonderful.

In 2006 a new church was opened next to the chapel and the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration took up residence.  The visitor makes their way along a cool, undecorated corridor and then finds themselves at a glass screen through which they can see the Chapel of Perpetual Adoration.  A lone nun is there, praying before the Blessed Sacrament which is exposed in the most amazing reredos which is really a giant monstrance.  It is indescribably beautiful.  I knelt there and the Latin from St John’s Gospel came to mind and became my prayer

‘Verbum caro factum est’ – ‘the Word was made flesh’ (John 1.14)

This was the real Bethlehem, the real reason to fall on my knees and worship.  The crowds were not there, there was no star, but there was something more, Jesus Christ in his Eucharistic presence. I remained kneeling, transfixed.  It was coming up to one o’clock. A side door opened.  Another nun appeared.  It was like the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace – and in a way it was, attending on the king, the child-king, the ever-present king who Magi travelled to this place to adore, who a vengeful and jealous king sought to destroy.  The Universal King born where his ancestor David was born. They were attending on the king and so was I. The nuns changed places, the watch continued as it always does.

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The changing of the guard – attending on the king

 

I made my way back towards Manger Square and saw a sign for the Coptic Orthodox Convent and Church.  It’s the Holy Family Grotto. I rang the bell.  A sister let me in and showed me the steps down into the cave in which the church is set.  It was silent and cool and calm.  Perhaps the Holy Family had passed this way, looking for hospitality, looking for safety.  I went back out.  The sister came forward and opened a tin of biscuits.  ‘Please have one’ she said ‘from us.’ It was a wonderful sign of the open hospitality in the place where the signs ‘No vacancies’ hung and doors were slammed shut.  If I find nothing else in Bethlehem, I have found Jesus and it is true, it is always Christmas in Bethlehem, for here the incarnation is lived and witnessed.

Lord Jesus,
child of Bethlehem,
be born in us today.
Amen.