My husband and I worked on the archeological excavation of Beersheba in south Israel during the summer of 1976. Of course, we visited other sites while we were there. In Bethlehem we marveled at the beautifully carved olivewood nativity sets, but we were on our way to jobs in Ethiopia at the end of the summer. Carrying the pieces with us was not practical, and shipping them to our parents would not have been satisfying. We were young, and I promised myself, “Next time.”
But when we returned to Bethlehem in January of 1990 with our two daughters, the land was torn by the first Intifada. Shops stood shuttered and closed in protest against the injustices that had given rise to the unrest. My husband remembers sitting in a café, chatting with some of the locals. As we lamented not being able to buy the nativity set I had been dreaming of for fourteen years, one of the young people said, “I know someone.”
We arranged a time to meet, and he led us to the back door of a closed shop where we slipped in quickly so we wouldn’t be seen and bring retribution on the owner. He was an old man—an Arab Christian who was thrilled to learn we were not only fellow Christians, but missionaries in Africa. He embraced our children, and we rejoiced together in fellowship across cultural and linguistic barriers even in difficult times.
As we talked, the man’s son wrapped each piece of the nativity in newspaper and carefully packed them. For twenty years in several houses the fifteen pieces have come out of storage to grace our piano. The paper they are wrapped in with its Hebrew newsprint has yellowed and crumbled. Most of it is now in shreds, replaced by tissue paper and unused Christmas napkins. But I can’t seem to throw the original wrappings away. They represent so much.
The past 20 years have not improved the situation in Bethlehem. A 25-foot wall with armed guards and steel gates now separates the suburb from Jerusalem. The Israelis intended it to keep terrorists out of the Holy City, but the economic hardship it has caused may create more terrorists than it prevents. Bethlehem Bible College, a school my husband has worked with as an educational consultant, attempts to be light in the darkness, showing compassion to needy families and promoting peace by developing the local economy. Their on-line <a href="http://www.bethbc.com/giftshop">gift shop</a> sells carved olivewood nativities much like ours, made by local artisans.
As I set up my figures again this Christmas I am reminded to pray once more for peace and justice under the reign of the Righteous Branch of David who was born a refugee in a Bethlehem stable two thousand years ago.
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
and he shall reign as king and deal wisely,
and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved,
and Israel will dwell securely.
And this is the name by which he will be called:
‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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