Traditions of Christmas: Walk through Bethlehem
Sixteen years ago I volunteered for a new Advent celebration at Church Street, because though I was already teaching Sunday School in the Children's Department, I wanted to get more involved by participating in an intergenerational event. Just kidding—I did it because it sounded like fun. A bit crazy maybe, but fun. When Sue Isbell first told me about her plan to convert the Parish hall into the town of Bethlehem as it might have been on the night Jesus was born, I thought it was a wild idea, but if anyone could make it happen, Sue could. I definitely wanted to help, just to see if we could pull it off. The first year was full of surprises, both pleasant and otherwise, but pull it off we did. The church had never had so many visitors in one afternoon, and they were both amazed and touched at the effort and attention to detail we put into that first Walk Through Bethlehem.
Since then, Walk Through Bethlehem has become more than a church-wide event. It is an interdenominational staple in the Knoxville Christmas calendar. Churches from all over town and East Tennessee bring vans and busloads of people to Church Street every year to walk back 2000 years to the town of David on a night when its streets were packed with the tribe of Judah returned for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus, a night full of strange stories from shepherds and rumors about angels, visions, and the birth of a child. We've had visitors from other states, other countries, and even other faiths attend this once-a-year miracle.
I use that word advisedly, because that's what it is. Every year when November rolls around, someone asks the question, “How are we going to do it again? Because of (fill in the blank here with whatever problem you can think of), I just don't see how we can.” But we do it. Praise the Lord, with the leadership of Sue and her husband Rick, and the devoted efforts of a core group of almost fanatical volunteers, every year obstacles are overcome, issues solved, and snafus untangled.
Why are our volunteers so devoted? I can't speak for everyone, but I believe Walk through Bethlehem is a life-changing event. I know it has altered my idea of the Advent season forever. This may sound a little strange, but my Christmas doesn't really start till I hear the sound of duct tape tearing and smell dusty shade cloth, a smell as hard to describe as it is to forget. By that time I'm wearing a faded navy blue shirt with a Biblical village skyline on the front and a verse from Luke on the back: “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened that the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15) I'm climbing ladders, using a staple gun, wiring walls together—things I never attempt at home, but don't think twice about surrounded by other volunteers doing the same or even harder things.
Volunteering for Walk Through Bethlehem has inspired me to do lots of things I may have been scared to try otherwise. I decided to walk through the real Bethlehem on a faith pilgrimage to Israel in 2001, along with several other faithful volunteers. Sue still has a picture of the group that day, wearing our WTB shirts in the streets of Bethlehem. A year later, when we decided to change our Sunday School to a Workshop Rotation method, I volunteered to head the drama workshop and wrote one of the first plays from the perspective of the angels, based on my experience of being the angel at Walk Through Bethlehem.
That's right. Since the second WTB 15 years ago I have had the privilege of being the Angel of the Lord for at least a few hours every year. When we had an evaluation meeting after the first WTB. Sue asked for feedback to improve the event for the following year, and I suggested including an angel to sit on the stable roof or somewhere “on high” to watch over the shepherds. When everyone else said they were afraid of heights, I laughed. The next year I spent the entire event sitting outside in the frosty air on top of scaffolding above the shepherd's fields. It was one of the most intense spiritual experiences of my entire life, and still is. Since that first long vigil, I have recruited younger, prettier angels to sit on high for at least half of the six hour event, but my time watching over the little town of Bethlehem is very precious. So many people completely miss seeing the angel, but there's always at least one small child who looks up and is just the right age: old enough to understand who I am but young enough to believe I might be real. That look of incredulous joy is something I never get tired of. For the last couple of years, one of the faces I've seen it on is Sue's granddaughter Hallie. Last year she had her mother and grandmother bring her back outside countless times to wave to me, then continued to call me “the angel up top” every time she saw me in Sunday School or church. This year she was determined to stay and watch till I flew away. Someday soon I know Hallie will figure out I'm not really an angel, but I'm not looking forward to it.
But maybe by then she'll understand, because she'll be part of it, helping us tell the story. That's really what Walk Through Bethlehem is about: telling the story, the most important story in a way that makes each person part of what is happening. The gift we want to give to our community is a new vision of how that night in Bethlehem changed the world and is still changing the world. Many times during the last 16 years at Walk Through Bethlehem I've looked over the crowds and felt that Jesus himself might be there somewhere, seeing us bring His story to life. I think it makes Him happy.