I was warned that Bethlehem would be different from the Bethlehem of my childhood stories. I grew up imagining a wooden stable like the ones I had seen on the farm where I grew up. The stable in my mind was very like the barn on my dad’s farm. Only smaller.
Eventually I learned that the stable was more of a cave or grotto. Even though I know this, I display a small wooden stable each Christmas with my small Mary and Joseph, hand painted by my talented daughter-in-law.
Was I warned that the stable would be small and crowded? Or that the religious atmosphere might be somewhat foreign to me? I don’t remember. Perhaps I was.
We had been in Israel several days before we visited Bethlehem, and I had already learned that where ever a sacred site had been identified someone had built a church over the site or at least in close proximity. Because of that the church built over the stable-cave was not a complete surprise.
The church was being remodeled and so there was scaffolding and other signs of construction. There were candles and many electric lights and chandeliers, none of which seemed to match. If there was significance to the randomness of the lights, no one mentioned it. Perhaps the lights were meant to honor the holy infant who was to be the Light of the World.
It was crowded and there was a line to see the place where Jesus was born. We were told that this was a short line. We felt a bit rushed because of the people behind us and the small space inside the cave.
We hastily glanced around us, touched the gold star on the floor where they said the baby had been born, and wished we could see the manger, which is now in Rome. We wondered if there had been room for animals and shepherds in this tiny place.
I wrote this poem shortly after our visit to Bethlehem.
In Search of the Stable
Is this cave the stable in Luke’s story,
The place where you were born?
I touched the star where they said it happened
And snapped a photo in your honor
Of the place they say you slept.
The manger is in Rome not here.
This is not the way I pictured it.
I have a different picture of this place
In the manger of my heart
and the stable of my mind.
I like my picture better,
But I am glad to be here anyway
And wish you a happy unbirthday
In October instead of April, or December