Many years ago, we had some friends in British Columbia who were originally from Bethlehem in Palestine. One day, they were showing us their wedding photos. The church looked familiar somehow, so I asked the name. Their English was still not fluent at the time, so they struggled for the answer; “It is called the church of the being born,” they replied. It hit me that I had never thought about the Church of the Nativity having parishioners, local folks. Our friends saw nothing remarkable about living a daily life in such an epicenter of Christian history. Of course, they were baptized and married there, learned their Faith, received their Lord in the Eucharist. Their families had lived in Bethlehem from before anyone kept track, and had worshipped in that church as a matter of course.
As a result, they had a familiarity with the Lord and his life that we will never have. For us, Bethlehem is a place long ago and far away, of strange-looking clothes and exotic customs, surrounded by towns with odd names. If you encountered this as a child in Sunday School, it seemed a tale of some never-never land, with no connection to your life.
The swarms of tourists come today to see the Church of the Nativity, to stand on the spot of Jesus’ birth. They are shown through under the watchful eye of the Occupation authorities, by carefully selected guides. The tourists I have spoken with saw a shrine, a place with a powerful history from long ago. Many were even moved by it. But they didn’t see the people of the parish. Most are unaware that Bethlehem was almost 100% Christian at the start of the Israeli nation in 1948, and is still a majority-Christian city. None of the tourists I spoke with attended worship at the Arabic Liturgy celebrated by the townspeople, nor understood the feeling of what it must be like to grow up in Jesus’ hometown and have his birthplace as your place of worship, all the places of his life’s events as ordinary places nearby. All the Gospel references to daily life and the lessons therefrom, which for us must be explained and clarified, are immediately obvious to the people of Bethlehem. Life is permeated by the immediacy of the Lord. Despite the immense difficulties of living in modern Bethlehem, the parishioners of the Church of the Nativity are blessed by the privilege of the presence of Jesus in their daily life in a way that we can only envy.
Many of us have ancestors who did live in the context of a Christian village. Considerable numbers of tourists visit these sites as well. It is often an interesting experience to show up for worship in such locales. The assumption of the tour guides is that you are only there to gawk and if worship is happening, the tourist may need to wait or be quiet or avoid a corner of the church where a small group is at prayer. But several centuries ago, every village in Europe had a parish church. The people who gathered for worship were often within the sound of the bell. The people who went to church with you were the same people who worked, farmed, and partied with you, who were at community meetings and at school, who sold you groceries, gave you your mail, hosted you at the pub. As one example, the parish pastor in Sweden was also ex officio chair of the school board, and registrar of vital statistics.
Few such places still exist. In western Europe, the revivals of the Nineteenth Century divided villages into those who saw themselves as the “real” Christians and the rest of the flock as unworthy of the name. But the children and grandchildren of the “revived” rebelled at the rigidities and judgements of the lifestyle, and the secular movements of the Twentieth Century took care of finishing off anyone who was left. In Eastern Europe, the class struggle had much the same destructive impact.
Few of us have tourists come to gawk at the churches we have. Many of us don’t even have churches. The people we interact with at work, school, community life, at stores or in the neighborhood seldom are the same as the ones we worship with. There is tragedy in the loss of Christendom, be it in Bethlehem, Stockholm, Canterbury or St. Petersburg.
But the earth is still the Lord’s. Alexander Schmemann relates the experience of the Russian exiles from the Bolshevik revolution who ended up in France. In Russia, they were accustomed to well-supported ornate, beautiful church buildings, splendid choirs, paid priests and deacons to take care of all the worship, pastoral and educational needs. Suddenly, it was all gone. They were instead gathering in a spare garage, with little money for salaries, choirs or anything else. Those for whom the institution was of the essence were devastated. But others began to realize the gift of a sacred earth, the value of doing liturgy themselves and not simply letting the clergy and choir do it all, the rediscovery of community as being church rather than the building and institution. They still had what they needed to worship, along with a new appreciation of God’s presence in the center of their lives.
What it is not, for the Russian, Palestinian or new Sudanese and Syrian Christian exiles, nor for us, is business as usual. Those who continue to package the Faith in the same old wineskins are dealing with much splitting and spillage. The new context of a post-Christian world requires new wineskins. The vocation of our generations is no longer to maintain and pass alone the heritage of Christendom in the carefully constructed Christian cocoon. It is no more.
Instead, we are thrust back into an environment similar to that of the pre-Constantinian Christian Church’s early centuries. We are now to respond to St. Paul’s mandate to be a leaven in the lump. We are not called to hide from participation in the world but to work among our fellow humans as yeast transforms dough. The Christian village has been replaced, not only by a population of mixed religions, but even more by one of a very vague understanding of the divine at all, and not much adherence to any faith in God.
Some recoil in horror from the new situation, and hide as a dispirited remnant in the familiar surroundings of the church building and the institutional forms, with its committees, organizations and programs. Some conform to the new mode, get rid of all that is not “with it,” and make up their religious program as they go. But this fails to grasp that life without God is an empty and meaningless highway to nowhere and death. People need to be spared from this, and many want to be. Offering them a mirror of what they have already perceived to be hollow won’t help.
The new wineskin can hold the old Tradition. The latter is dynamic and progressive, always responsive to new yeast to ferment. It needs only the chance to be presented in a vernacular people will understand. Sacrament is designed to connect the real, material world with the love of God. When it is not held captive by legalism, Protestant contempt of its value in conveying the presence of Jesus, false barriers or stuffy presentation, it does its job well. Eucharist centers people into community with God and mankind, and into relationship with the Lord’s earth. Some are too engrossed in the pursuit of greed, fame, warped ideologies or other dead-ends to pay much attention. But a very large number feel the gnawing emptiness inside where a nurtured soul should be but isn’t. They are anxious to hear if we can get out there to tell them the story clearly and they can get past their previous stereotypes about Jesus. You don’t have to give up any of the Tradition to do this. In fact, since it is exactly what they often seek without knowing it, it is counter-productive to do “Christianity Lite.” But it is also counter-productive to do your liturgy and witness off in a corner where no one is listening (“Father MacKenzie, writing the words to a sermon which no one will hear,” as the Beatles sing.)
The sacramental presence of Christ has washed over you, marked you indelibly and feeds you continually. You are the “Christopher,” the Christ-bearer every moment of your life, and the image of Christ is also on faces of everyone you meet. Be clear, be bold and understand you are made alive in order to be the vehicle which saves the Lord’s creations. The immediacy that the people of Bethlehem have with their Lord is available to all of us, even living in a context far different from the Bethlehem of pre-1948.