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I've done an inordinate amount of traveling over the past 50 years. It seems that everywhere I've been, whether here in the United States or abroad, has an appeal of its own. Sometimes it's in the place; sometimes, in the people. Either way, few places are difficult to leave behind once my purpose for being there is exhausted. Something inside says, "Go home. You've been here long enough."
Then it's time to return to familiar faces and surroundings. This sort of homing magnetism is especially true when the holidays draw near. Despite all the good things that can be said about revered seasons of celebration, for me as a Christian, no holiday quite measures up to Christmas.
If asked why this is true, one reason must be the desire to go "home" for Christmas, to Bethlehem in the Holy Land. In fact, the vast majority of the two billion-plus adherents to Christianity, representing 33 percent of the world's total population, make the trip literally or in their hearts and minds every year.
I was struck by this phenomenon a few days ago when my wife and I were traveling home to Virginia after a visit with family in Florida. We were listening to Christmas music sung by the choir of the National Cathedral in our nation's capitol. These magnificent voices sang about Bethlehem and the events that took place there over 2,000 years ago. And as I listened, the thought came flooding into my mind: All over the world in these days before Christmas - in cathedrals, churches, millions of international locales, and around family fireplaces - believers are making a spiritual pilgrimage back to Bethlehem. They're going home to where it all began.
In reality, they are responding to the words of the prophet: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting." (Micah 5:2)
THESE "ascenders," if you will, are making their way up the slopes of the Shepherds Fields where the ancient shepherds were first ordered to make the journey: "Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them... Then the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David [Bethlehem] a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.'" (Luke 2:8-11)
For Christians, there is a fusion of biblical truth from the Older Testament and the Bethlehem chapter in the New. It emanates from the "Immanuel" (God With Us) prophecies, particularly those of Isaiah.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).
The great wonder of it all for Christian believers is that God has chosen to visit this planet. How and where did He choose to do so? It was in a stable in an obscure Jewish village in Judea, through a Jewish virgin's womb, and in the person of a Jewish Baby in a manger. Mortal man could never have conceived such a plan. Yet God accomplished it.
So it is that there is no end to depictions of the sacred event, be it in church pageants, cr ches, elegant symphonic presentations, or congregations and traveling singers lifting familiar carols heavenward. They all exist because of the miracle of Bethlehem.
I'M SOMETIMES asked if I believe the Bible's account to be literal and historical, or a quaint story stuffed with allegory and excesses conjured up to fit the simple notions of the faithful. I believe every word: the star in the east, the shepherds, the angelic host, the inn, the stable, the virgin, and above all the Babe lying in swaddling clothes in Mary's arms. I am a believer.
For me, going "home" for Christmas is a personal journey, one I have taken in a literal way dozens of times and never tire of. But more significantly, one I took when I became a follower of the Jesus, who revolutionized my life and altered my reason for living. That's the real story of Christmas.
And whether or not you endorse all aspects of the account, you'll have to agree that we can't argue the sentiments of the angelic multitudes' closing refrain: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" (Luke 2:14)
The writer, a pastor, is a leader of the Christian Zionist movement in the United States.
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