The small Middle Eastern town was strange and cramped but the townspeople were warm and friendly. A sea of humanity populated the marketplace – children running around without shoes on their feet, merchants earning their meager wages in the tiny stalls that they called shops, and armed soldiers stomping around shoving people out of their way. As rodents scurried through holes in the cardboard-thin common walls of the shops, the eager merchants, fueled by the crowd of patrons, were busy making and selling their wares.
Each shop owner greeted me with lively conversation as I wandered through the marketplace.
“Hello, Miss, would you like me to show you how I weave these wonderful baskets?” called the basketweaver.
“Ladies, where have you traveled from today? I see you noticing this fine stool I have in my shop. It’s made of the highest quality wood,” said the carpenter.
“Now those young girls are fingerweaving. In a few years they’ll be weaving cloth on the loom just like the older girl here behind me,” explained the clothweaver.
I lingered for a while at the potter’s booth as I watched his skilled hands mold a lump of wet clay into the shape of a bowl. Then a spirited young girl who was stomping grapes in a wine vat around the corner caught my eye. She hummed the tune that a small band of musicians played just a little way down the lane from her father’s wine shop.
I stopped to rest for a moment at the town well and was drawn into a conversation with two local women who were drawing the day’s water.
“Did you hear the latest? One of the outsiders – no offense – practically had her baby right in the street – just down the lane there,” the older woman said. It was the same question almost every person I talked with had asked.
“Have you heard – is it a boy or a girl?” the younger of the two women asked me.
“The basketweaver told me that she heard it was a boy,” I replied.
The young woman now in full gossip mode said, “I hear that the infant is supposed to be some kind of important person.”
The older woman shook her head and said in a matronly tone, “I doubt it. His parents are as poor as can be. He’ll never have the chance to amount to anything. Why, he’ll be lucky to make it through his first year without starving to death.”
I would have stayed to hear more of the village news, but a beggar had begun to hover around me. I grew uneasy as he relentlessly extended his empty, dirty hand pleading for the coins that might be in my pocket so I excused myself from the ongoing conversation and went on my way leaving the women and the beggar behind.
The stream of people making its way through the marketplace seemed to grab hold and pull me along. This small village was never built to hold so many people, but the foreign government in charge had announced that everyone in the country whose ancestors had ever been born there was required to be registered and pay an unfair tax that would only end up lining some politician’s pocket. People from all over the country had been pouring into this little hamlet for weeks. That’s why the military was there. Leave it to the government to cause all of this commotion.
While I was at the bakery sampling a pastry and listening to more of the town gossip, a young soldier barged in and handed something to the shop owner. Apparently, before I arrived, someone had burglarized the shop. I don’t know what had been stolen, but after looking at the soldier, I believed it was best that I not know anything about it at all.
As I came to the end of the market district, I noticed a small crowd of people heading into a dark cave-like structure. My curiosity got the better of me when I was told that the baby – the focus of all of the excitement and town gossip – was there. I just had to stop in to see him.
“He’s such a beautiful baby,” a voice in the crowd was saying.
I watched the baby intently as he reached out to grab his toes, discovering them as if for the first time, repeatedly. The young mother had dark circles under her eyes and looked very tired as she sat next to him.
A man in the crowd asked, “Does he cry much?”
The new father rolled his eyes and said in an exasperated tone, “All night.”
“What’s his name?” a woman asked.
Mary and Joseph answered almost in unison, “His name is Jesus.”
I wish to thank the members of St. John’s Lutheran Church of Highland in the North Hills of Pittsburgh who so vividly brought the Christmas story to life for me in their own specially-built town of Bethlehem that fills their entire fellowship hall. The number of volunteers was astounding and each person was dedicated to welcoming us to Bethlehem and into the Christmas story. They continue this wonderful ministry and outreach every even-numbered year. If you have the opportunity to “travel to Bethlehem” via St. John’s, I highly recommend it.
About the pictures:
The Holy Land - Taken by Dr. Larry Ruby (2005)