Walk to Bethlehem
Our Signature Outreach
In 1843, Charles Dickens described Christmas as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time, the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Call it madness, call it absence of mind, call it a strange collective hysteria, call it what-you-will; Christmas is a time when sane people go mad and mad people become sane. It happens but once a year, and in it––or by it––an exception is made in the accustomed order of things, as if to say “Okay, folks, now we are going to do things differently, for a time, so please stand by for station identification. Don’t panic! We’ll return to regular programming as soon as possible.”
Christmas in the West may occasion shocking greed and debauchery––but both hearts and treasuries fly open, as if by magic. (Though lovers of God know that nothing is ever by magic, God being gracious.) Yes, it sometimes takes the curl out of their naturally curly hair, but people make detours from the ‘broad road’ of customary life. Then, and only then, “The bird of dawning singeth all night long/And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad/The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike/No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm/So hallow’d and so gracious is the time” (Hamlet, I.i.158–164). In many ways, Christmas is the shining star of Western civilization.
Children know this. Every year, growing up, children know exactly when Christmas begins. Christmas begins by the Spirit of God; first a snowflake, then a wish, then a prayer, then another snowflake––and another, and another. Not only is heaven falling to earth, but Christmas is on its way: and with it, the unbidden sense of another world. Children tear out-of-doors in a flash, leaping, dancing, running in circles, trying to catch the snow in their hands, trying to see what a snowflake looked like before it melted away. They are stabbed, ‘flashed,’ even––with an irresistible lightning bolt of joy. That first snowflake starts a whole freight train of joy that careens wildly, magically, breathlessly, all the way to Christmas. Children can hear what C. S. Lewis called the “real story . . . . the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Childhood fancy? Perhaps. But it is clear that at this extraordinary time of year something hindering is removed, and by the outreaching Spirit of God a veil falls away––in a flash, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. “The value of story,” wrote Lewis, elsewhere, “is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his or her own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him or her more savory for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it the real meat” (from a review of Lord of the Rings). This is how the Christian Gospels function––Matthew, Mark, Luke, John––more so at Christmas than any other time of the year. They are a new kind of literature for a new reality, “deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know”—a reality at once ordinary, after all, Jesus was just a carpenter from Nazareth, like his father before him, right? Or was he?
Telling the story––the Christmas Story, the Great Story––and in so doing, recovering the unbidden sense of another world. This is the challenge taken on by St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church when it first created the Walk to Bethlehem. Setting to work, we built props. We sewed costumes. We gathered materials. And when all was ready, we put together an indoor/outdoor panoply of displays: an Artisans’ Marketplace, an Ancient Near Eastern Food Fair, a Roman Garrison, and a Synagogue––for starters. We also brought in live animals; staged plays; created the Shining Star Café as a venue for live music; and recreated the Nativity scene. “A wonderful, enjoyable event,” wrote one woman, after seeing the first edition. “I am very impressed with how much work went into all areas. So much detail and wonderful warm-hearted people. Thank you for the experience. This is what Christmas is all about.”
We’ve mounted the Walk to Bethlehem 11 times, and hope that 2021 may occasion our 12th presentation, if Covid-19 graciously departs the planet in time, God being our helper.
Please keep in touch, and check back with us for more details as the months unfold.