My dream of taking a tour to Israel came true a couple of summers ago. I found myself in Bethlehem, at the fourth-century Church of the Nativity, which houses the cave where Jesus is said to have been born. The four-foot-high profile of the single entrance, called the door of the humility, caused me to bow low as I entered heaven’s “maternity ward.” The huge pink, polished limestone columns and the grand cathedral ceilings gave me a sense of awe.
The steps down to the Grotto of the Nativity lead to the cave traditionally recognized as Jesus’ birthplace. On the floor, a 14-point silver star marked the spot commemorating His arrival. People lined up there for a moment to touch or kiss the star.
I anticipated being moved like the ancient church father Jerome, who said, “With what words, with what voice, can we describe the Saviour’s cave? And that manger where the Babe cried is to be honored more by deep silence than by feeble speech. Behold, in this small hole in the earth the Founder of the heavens was born, here he was wrapped in swaddling clothes, here seen by the shepherds, here shown by the star, here worshipped by the wise men.”
Throughout my two weeks in Israel, I often felt a special connection to Jesus as I realized He had walked, eaten, and slept where I stood. But pausing in the Church of the Nativity with its gold plated walls, rich tapestries, and elaborate ornamentation, I felt repulsed, indignant, and angry as I thought of the words of biblical scholar E. M. Blaiklock, who visited the cave and said that it was “hung and cluttered with all the tinsel of men’s devotions.”
Jerome spoke against the commercialization in his day. He said, “O, if only I were permitted to look upon that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as an honor to Christ, we have taken away the manger of clay and have replaced it with crib of silver, but more precious to me is the one that has been removed. Silver and gold are proper to heathendom; Christian faith is worthy of the manger that is made of clay. He who was born in that manger cared nothing for gold and silver. I do not find fault with those who made the change in the cause of honor (nor do I look with disfavor upon those in the Temple who made vessels of gold), but I wonder at the Lord, the Creator of the universe, who is born, not surrounded by gold and silver, but by mud and clay.”
Beyond Jerome’s response, I felt my righteous indignation rise. Why couldn’t they just have left the cave and its manger intact? All this tinsel distracts people from worshiping God. It crowds Him out. I wanted to bring out my Indiana Jones whip and cleanse the church like Jesus cleared the money changers out of the temple!
But then the thought struck me that it was still God’s house, even with the money changers present. Instead of causing an international incident, I needed to clear these things out in my mind and find the meaning of the Nativity behind the glitz of the church.
And I need to do the same for the American-ornamented Christmas. Instead of judging others’ motives for tinseling up Christmas, I need to find the true meaning of Christmas. I need to keep my attention focused on the hidden truths about God that lie beyond the ornaments.
Hidden behind the tinsel of the gold walls, I find the Christmas truth—that Jesus was born King. Oh, He wasn’t the golden king that the world desired or expected. He wasn’t a king that would deliver Israel from Roman captivity and enter Israel into a golden age of Jewish rule. Herod needn’t have felt threatened by the gold-toting Magi who were looking for the “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:1). He needn’t have issued that decree seeking to kill any potential rival king, because this King hadn’t come to rule over Herod’s land. He came to rule in the hearts of men and women.
The priests also feared that Jesus would replace them, so they manipulated the leaders to have Him crucified. Yet He reminded them that “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36, NASB).*
If only they had paid attention to the prophecy of Zechariah:
O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey
(Zechariah 9:9, NASB; emphasis added).
This Messianic King had come to conquer Satan, sin, and death itself. His death linked the promised son of David and the Son of God together forever. Because although He “was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh,” He “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4, NASB).
Hidden beneath the tinsel of the palatial church in the Grotto of the Nativity, I find the Christmas truth: Jesus was born in a cave as the Lord of the hard times in our lives. It’s fine with me if you prefer to imagine His birthplace as a humble shack, a barn for animals behind the house of the innkeeper who rented out his rooms as an inn. I would not argue the specifics. The point is that Jesus wasn’t born to some rich Jewish merchant eating choice cuts of meat, wearing purple robes, and attended by a staff of servants. He wasn’t given status, clout, or respect by being born to a Levitical priest or a ruling-class Pharisee. Being born to everyday, poor, unwed Mary and a human stepfather named Joseph gave Him no silver-spoon advantage. He lives with us in the struggles common to even the poorest of classes. Taxes, hard work, rejection, heartache—Jesus experienced them all. He truly came as “Immanuel . . . ‘God with us’ ” (Matthew 1:23). He is with all of us, regardless of class, ethnicity, or gender. God has come to join Himself to all of humankind. The fact that the Almighty became a vulnerable, fragile, dependent human child speaks of His willingness to empty Himself to unite us with Himself (Philippians 2:7). The God-Man joined humanity and divinity together, and thanks to His death and resurrection, He walks among us through His Holy Spirit.
Hidden in the symbol of the tinseled silver star on the floor is the Christmas truth—that we live in the presence of an unseen world. The star that guided the Magi to the Savior of the world was, in reality, a distant company of shining angels. Heaven and earth are linked together.
The patriarch Jacob’s con operation caused him to flee from his family and his homeland. Depressed, Jacob also feared because many thought that gods stayed within their tribal ground, so he may have thought that by fleeing, he had also lost his God. But God sent a prophetic vision of assurance that He was present. A ladder let down from heaven told him that heaven and earth were linked as angels ascended and descended.
Jesus used this story to speak of Himself, pointing out that He had been sent as the connection between heaven and earth. He said to one of His early disciples, Nathaniel, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man’ ” (John 1:51).
When God announced the work of the angels in connecting earth and heaven, He labeled the star marking Jesus’ birth as Jacob’s star “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). Can you hear the angels singing?
Hidden in the tinseled lines of searching people, I see the Christmas truth: human beings are needy. The Jewish “conference president,” Nicodemus, came to Jesus because, although he had religion, something was missing from his heart. He didn’t have God. Jesus told him, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Nicodemus’s physical birth, even though it was from pedigreed religious stock, wasn’t enough. He needed the change that only Christ can give. Jesus was born to die for sinful humans. This truth is hidden in the place of Jesus’ birth. Through the virgin Mary, God delivered Him in Bethlehem six miles from Jerusalem, where shepherds watched over the temple sheep for sacrifice.
I find it to be no coincidence that the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world was born in a stable in Bethlehem (John 1:29; Micah 5:2). While we should celebrate the joy of a birth, we must not cover with tinsel that Jesus was born to go to the cross. We must pause to contemplate at Christmastime the self-sacrificing love of God, particularly God the Father, in giving us the gift of His Son, born to die as our Substitute.
Then let us rejoice that He is resurrected, for it’s because of that resurrection that He could promise us, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3). Behind the tinsel, I find that Christmas was a rescue mission.
Like the shrine of the Church of the Nativity, I sometimes find the celebration of Christmas so commercialized that I miss what is behind the tinsel. My trip to Israel reminds me of the hidden truths of Christmas. Jesus came as the promised Messiah to rule over the kingdom of my heart; He was incarnated as a common man to join with humanity and promises to be with me even in life’s hard circumstances. Jesus’ birth announces that God has bridged the gap between heaven and earth, and angels touch us still today. And finally, it reminds me that Jesus was born as the sacrificial Lamb of God, my Lamb, substituting for my sin, and connecting me with God to be with Him forever. I found Christmas in the tinsel of Israel’s Church of the Nativity.
James Berglund is the pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Killeen, Texas. He contributes occasional articles to Signs of the Times®.
* Bible verses marked NASB are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.