Please don’t ask me whether I have been to Bethlehem before. My answer would not be the one you are expecting. I should have listened when a friend told me that the past should remain firmly in the past and it’s never a good idea to go back to places.
I was in Bethlehem many years ago, long before it became part of the pilgrimage tour. It was just an unknown village nestling in the hills in a turbulent country just about the time when BC became AD. When the eyes of the enemy were focussed on the grand cities, golden palaces and great kings, the event that would have the biggest impact on the world was happening in the shadows.
I wasn’t a major player. I wasn’t the archangel announcing the birth the young girl. I didn’t slip into the troubled dreams of her intended husband bringing reassurance that it was all part of the Plan. I didn’t stir the wise men to travel thousands of miles for the glimpse of a child.
I sang in the choir that night.
There are some events in history that shouldn’t go unmarked. Something so pivotal was about to happen. Maybe it wouldn’t change heaven so much, but life on earth was about to be transformed. How could we not celebrate it?
It was just a small choir. The hosts of heaven yearned to be witnesses, but just a few were chosen. How like the Father not to exclude those that didn’t possess the best voices. I love to sing, but I don’t always hit a pure note.
Singing on earth is so different from singing in heaven. Eternity paints a backdrop that no earthly brush strokes can replicate. The light in heaven seems to catch the music as it floats in the air, bouncing off sound in a prism of colours. The earth with its borrowed light catches nothing. In heaven there is the unity off all the angels joined together in a celebration of worship. On earth no one really hears. Their ears may pick up a sound, but their hearts are deaf.
Tiny pinpricks of light were stapled on a black sky. I have never seen the stars from so far away. We sang the opening phrase.
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests."
Had you been there that night you would have thought earth was silent. Your ears would have heard no response. No loud “Amen’s”. But we could hear creation joining in. There was a melody in the wind that breathed through the trees and laughter in the water gurgling from the spring. The moon softly murmured and joy rippled through the grass. We heard it all. Creation was stirring, as realisation was dawning that soon captivity would be taken captive and freedom was close enough to smell.
A huddle of shepherds and a smattering of sheep were our audience that night. They stared at us, open mouthed, eyes pulled wide in their sockets. They had never seen the likes of us before, or heard the song that we were singing. Such a distance between them and the created world there was that for all their eyes, they could not see, and for all their ears, they could not hear. They couldn’t join in…not yet.
How many songs did we sing? Just the one. The words spelled out an ancient truth. The melody echoed the song of the stars as creation was made in the beginning.
This was a new beginning.
After a thousand years or more why do I return to the same place? My fingers trace the scars of war in the dust and I smell the lingering fragrance of gunpowder in the air. I read headstone after headstone in the cemeteries. I hear the sobbing of families robbed of a father or a brother. There is no laughter in the trees and the spring has long dried up. Disappointment on my tongue has a bitter sting. The world is still enslaved.
Just as I am about to leave, I hear it. Faintly. There is another choir singing our song of peace. Not inside a church, surrounded by stained glass windows and marbled columns, they stand on the corner of a street, a small choir of the Father’s children singing a song of peace to their Muslim neighbours.
I add my voice to theirs and, slowly, ever so slowly, creation joins in.