Bethlehem: The Original Christmas Village


 “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.  Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.”

In recent years, in addition to trees, lights, candles, and angels, Christmas villages have become a trendy feature in Christmas décor. In our home we have a few Christmas village scenes featured in our holiday display.  These Dickenesque houses are lighted models of wintry landscape and architecture.

However, the original Christmas village, the one in the biblical Christmas story, was nothing like our English village scenes. The original Christmas village was rustic and somewhat rural.  The original Christmas village was Bethlehem of Judea.

Interestingly, a headline in The Washington Post this morning reads, “Little Palestinian town of Bethlehem wants its tourists, Christian residents to come back.”  Although the security barrier and a stagnant economy, including an unemployment rate of 23%, are significant challenges for local residents and tourists, the tourism industry is making a comeback this year, as 1.6 million people from around the world came to visit the village where Jesus was born.

Bethlehem is located on the West Bank, approximately 5.5 miles from Jerusalem.  The historical significance of this small town is rich in story and legend. It is near the place where Jacob buried Rachel, it was the home of Naomi and Ruth, it was the site where Samuel anointed David, and it later became known, prophetically, as the city of David. 

Bethlehem literally means “house of bread.” Bethlehem probably derived its name because it is located in one of the most fertile areas of Palestine.  The area abounded in wheat and barley and rye, the ingredients of bread, the stuff of life.  Biblically speaking, bread is a staple of life that poetically represents nurture, health, and provision.  It is no wonder that Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem, was called the “Bread of Life.”

In this small but strategic village, “Christ, the Savior” was born.  As you celebrate the birth of the one who taught us to break bread and share bread, may your festivities be characterized by a growing faith, good health, and a generous sharing of your abundance with those who are lacking.

 “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light.  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

(Barry Howard serves as Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

Advent: Taking the Scenic Route to Christmas

In the 1970’s when Interstate 20 opened between Atlanta and Birmingham, many local residents were looking forward to faster travel on the new freeway.  For years, my family had traveled to Birmingham from Anniston on old highway 78, a two-lane road that would take us past Lake Logan Martin near Pell City and over the mountains near Chula Vista.

After I-20 opened, I was excited to accompany my grandparents on our annual trip to the Eastwood Mall to see “the real Santa,” to ride the escalator in Pizitz Department Store, and to do a little Christmas shopping.  I was surprised, however, to find that my grandfather preferred to drive the old two lane highway rather than the new expressway.  He would often say something like, “The freeway is for people who are in a rush.  The scenic route is for people who want to enjoy the trip.”

I didn’t know anything about Advent back then, but now I understand that, in a sense, Advent really is the scenic route to Christmas.  There seems to be a subtle force in the ethos of our economy that pushes us to travel toward Christmas in the fast lane, implying that the season is all about shopping and spending, and acquiring and accumulating.  Advent encourages us to go slow and breathe in the scenery en route to Bethlehem.

As a young pastor, I was introduced to the colors and candles of Advent and my journey toward Christmas changed drastically.  Today, I am convinced more than ever that as mission-driven Christians who live in a market-driven culture, we need the reflective disciplines of Advent to keep us alert to stealth influences like materialism, busyness, and greed, illusive forces that aim to cloak the real message of the season and replace it with superficial slogans and commercial clichés. 

Advent is a time to listen for a truth that is bigger than words and to long for a gift that is other than stuff.  By helping us reconnect with the heart of the Christmas story, Advent challenges us to reject cultural notions of a Jesus who promises prosperity, success, and self-fulfillment, and calls us to follow the biblical Jesus who offers forgiveness, exemplifies simplicity, and teaches self-denial.

For the Christian, the season of Advent is like a scenic tour that begins with the promises of the prophets and concludes with the nativity narrative.  Advent is a journey of emerging expectation that culminates when the Christ candle is lighted and the Christmas Star shines over the manger in Bethlehem.

Somehow when we revisit the prophets and we re-read the gospels, we are better equipped to empathize with the anxiety of Mary and Joseph and to feel the labor pains of God. By observing Advent, when we celebrate the birth of the most renowned newborn in history, we can hear both the joyful sounds of angels singing and the repercussive sobs of Rachel weeping.

If we dare to avoid the expressway and we take the scenic route to Christmas, we may discover that we are willing to follow Jesus from the cradle to the cross and beyond.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)


A Memorable Visit to Pearl Harbor

As a kid growing up in rural Alabama, I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to travel broadly. For us, making the journey from Anniston to Eastwood Mall in Birmingham was like a mini-vacation.

Going to an exotic location, like Hawaii, seemed out of the question. However, in 1995 I made my first trip to Hawaii, and of course, Pearl Harbor was high on my list of sites to visit.

I was raised near Pelham Range and Fort McClellan in Calhoun County. Seeing military convoys traveling the highways and hearing artillery fire from the range was a routine part of life. Later, when I served as an associate minister at the First Baptist Church of Weaver, near the army base, and even later, as I taught on the adjunct faculty at the college on the base, I developed significant friendships with military personnel. As long as I can remember, I have had a deep sense of gratitude for veterans and profound sense of gratitude for all of our military personnel.

I think anyone who visits Pearl Harbor is overwhelmed with emotion. As I watched tourists and veterans alike walk around the monument reading the list of names with reverent silence and then gaze in the water at the rusted vessel, I thought about the families who never saw their young men and women return home.

Mostly due to a missions partnership we had developed through our church, I made subsequent visits to Hawaii in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. My most memorable visit occurred in 1999. That year I had the privilege of taking my friend, Mack Jones of Corbin, Kentucky, on his first trip to Hawaii. Mack’s brother, Edward, died January 5, 1944 in the aftermath of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and is buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as “Punchbowl.”

On a prior trip, a group of us, including Mack’s wife, Wylene, had visited Punchbowl, located the headstone for Edward W. Jones, taken a few photos, and then did a pencil tracing of the gravemarker to take home to Mack.

The next year, we were privileged to return, and this time Mack went with us. First we traveled up the hill to Punchbowl and visited Edward’s grave. Then we traveled to Pearl Harbor to visit the memorial. As a group of us stood alongside our friend, whose brother never returned home to Kentucky, we were even more aware of the sobering reality of war, and even more appreciative of the sacrifices of those paid the price of our freedom with their own blood.

Since I have moved to Pensacola, I have conducted over 125 services at Barrancas National Cemetery located at the Naval Air Station here. As a minister, I am honored to share words in memoriam for veterans of all ages.

And today, as I think about that memorable visit to Pearl Harbor and Punchbowl, and my many other visits to Barrancas, Eisenhower, and Arlington National Cemeteries, I am also praying that the Christmas “peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind” will become our global reality.

(Barry Howard serves as the senior minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)
reposted from December 2012