From Bethlehem to Bedlam and Back

It was planned as a “Journey to Bethlehem” in my last parish before becoming a District Superintendent, a living village with authentic smells and sights,  with a living tableau of Bethlehem’s manger complete with live animals and a real couple and their very own baby, albeit there was a heating pad under the straw in the manger. I was type-cast as the “Crazy Prophet” quoting Scripture that foretold the coming of Christ. Unfortunately, the craziness went beyond me. There weren’t any problems with the cows and the lambs. The donkeys were fine, too. They played their roles well. Never mind that a camel couldn’t be found. After all, we reasoned that the Wise Men would have parked them out back anyway.

 The goats were a different story. Hindsight is always 20-20. No wonder goats aren’t usually found in crèches. Jesus told the truth when he said that on Judgement Day the sheep ought to be divided from the goats. Together, they can wreck a nativity scene. One year a goat got loose and almost wrecked the whole experience!

 We often turn our experience of Christ’s birth into a zoo. We mix our metaphors for Christ’s incarnation, blend the sacred and the secular, and end up with the goats and sheep butting heads. Our symbols and celebrations have become a hodgepodge of the commercial and sentimental. Santa and tinsel have overshadowed Jesus. Phyllis Diller said it well, “Santa Claus comes to us under many names: Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, Mastercard.” We have lost Jesus and replaced Him with a Coca-Cola image of jolly old St. Nick.

 With Christmas customs and live nativities, Bethlehem can easily degenerate into bedlam. What began as an earnest attempt to make the Nativity of our Lord more realistic turned into a somewhat humorous disaster. But that’s nothing new. “Bedlam” often describes how we celebrate Christmas today.

 The word goes back to the 1400s when a London hospital named St. Mary of Bethlehem opened its doors to the insane. According to historians, it was a very noisy and unkempt place. People started dropping St. Mary from the name. Then they eventually contracted and corrupted the last part. Bethlehem became Bethlem and finally bedlam, a place of noise and confusion. A name that was first associated with the mother of the Prince of Peace became synonymous with disruption and despair.

Sounds like our hectic schedule of Christmas parties and commitments, doesn’t it? But, it doesn’t have to be this way. The celebration of Christmas need not become bedlam. Worship ought not cause confusion but peace, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (I Corinthians 14:33).  This season is best enjoyed in stillness and reflection. Let the hush of this holy season toss out the bedlam of overactivity! Yes, a Journey to Bethlehem is more authentic when you can actually hear the cattle lowing, but praise God for how still and worshipful everyone got when they came to the stable and saw a real family with a real baby. The sounds of the village wafted away and were replaced by the silence of awe. May it be so today!

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