Earlier this month, it was Laura’s Birthday. Traditionally, this has meant that she got her presents wrapped in Christmas paper (much to her dismay) and since her birthday is preceded by three other birthdays AND Thanksgiving, celebratory cake does not even make her list of desired activities. However, this year Laura received an email from a friend that included a hand drawn map showing the location of a ‘Walk to Bethlehem’ living nativity being conducted a few miles to the south of us in American Fork, Utah. Feeling desperately in need of a holiday lift, and noting that this was the last night of the performance, Laura and I got in our four-wheel drive ‘sleigh’ and made the excursion to the outskirts of this semi-rural farming local to experience the recreation of that night so long ago. Having gotten lost along the way, we eventually found the designated parking field just in time to join the last group entering David’s City that night.
We had a little difficulty following the path toward the stable as by the time we had arrived, the candles in the luminaria lining the path had long since gone out. I considered this more authentic, however, since luminaria are largely found in the traditions of New Mexico. Fortunately for us, Laura has brought a small flashlight (there was oil in her lamp, it seems) and we made our way down the farm road to the first camp fire blazing in the night. There we met a number of shepherds gathered around the fire who told us of some pretty amazing things that angels had told them about a baby coming that night. Then we all sang a verse of ‘Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains’ which, while the Biblical account in Luke only mentions the angels saying (not singing), I found to be most appropriate given that this particular Christmas hymn was composed in St. George, Utah in the 1800’s.
We then journeyed down the increasingly dark road between fenced farmland to the second blazing campfire. Here we met the Wise Men in cowboy boots and sneakers. We followed their directions to a local Inn — which looked remarkably like a 1970’s two-story brick farmhouse with a cement porch.
A woman in eastern dress answered the knock of our shepherd.
“We’re lookin’ fer a woman who is big with child,” the shepherd said loudly.
The woman was not impressed. “Well, I don’t know about BIG but I saw a woman GREAT with child who came to my door.”
“He’s been gettin’ that wrong all night,” we heard one of the Wise Men mutter behind us.
“I didn’t have any room for them,” the woman continued from the doorway despite the fact that the home looked pretty empty. “But I told them they could stay in my stable.”
“Could you show us where she went?” the Wise men asked.
“Sure!” the woman said. “Let’s go do this thing!”
We journeyed further still into the farm country. The night overhead was clear of clouds and we were far enough from the lights of the town so that all the sky was ablaze with starlight. Suddenly as we came to a bend in the road, flood lights sprang to life, bathing rows of angels who appeared suddenly high above us on the top of a stack of hay-bales. They were cold up there that winter night but sang their hearts out with angelic fervor. Then the flood lights died and the angels vanished into the darkness.
As we came tot he stable, we could hear the horses, displaced for the performance, whinnying in the night. At last we came to the stable — a metal, prefabricated stable that on any other night might actually see use to the animals penned around us. Here was Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus … an actual baby held by her mother tight against the cold night and wearing a knit cap against the cold.
We sang ‘Silent Night as a group there in the stable — a hymn composed in Germany more than a millennium beyond the events portrayed before us but it didn’t make any difference. Perhaps this WAS how it was back then in a very real sense — inglorious surroundings and just common folk looking in wonder on this little baby in a shed and wondering what it would mean to them.
We walked back, Laura and I, beneath those stars blazing overhead. I saw a meteor cross the sky. Perhaps that was exactly the way it was in Bethlehem so long ago. ‘Sleep in heavenly peace,’ I thought. ‘Sleep in heavenly peace.’