In 2013, a record 2 million people visited Bethlehem. It was estimated that there were 75,000 tourists in the Holy Land for the Christmas holiday, and most of them were expected to celebrate Jesus’s birthday in the city where he was born.
Yet a survey taken several years ago listed Bethlehem as the world’s third most disappointing tourist destination, just beating out the Polo Lounge in Hollywood and the Monte Carlo casino in Monaco. Why is it that people find Bethlehem disappointing?
It might be that tourists come with unrealistic expectations. They come, expecting to see something holy or even magical. They find themselves looking for a strange light in the sky and expecting a thrill down the spine, as they reminisce about the silent night that changed the world. That’s what they come looking for, but that’s probably not what they find.
What they find is a noisy town, crowded with pilgrims and secured by armed soldiers. Before they can enter they must pass through a checkpoint, show their passports, and walk through a metal detector. They flock to Bethlehem’s most important site: the Church of the Nativity. But it’s smaller than they expected and divided into Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox sections. Apparently these followers of the Prince of Peace can’t get along with each other.
If tourists find Bethlehem disappointing now, one wonders what ancient travelers must have thought – because the place doesn’t seem to have been all that great when Mary and Joseph were there either. The biblical text suggests it was overcrowded, inhospitable, and (remember the stable) dirty. If Joseph and Mary had submitted a review to TripAdvisor, Bethlehem would have been lucky to get two green dots, and that would only have been because they were generous.
So people are disappointed in spite of Bethlehem’s close connection to Christmas. Or are they disappointed because of it? Christmas is, after all, the most disappointing of the holidays. We expect gifts, we get debt. We want excitement, we get stress. We pray for peace on earth but we get crowds at Walmart. We hope this year’s Christmas gatherings will be characterized by “good will among men,” but once again we get ill will among co-workers and family members.
Could it be that Christmas lets us down because we are looking for the wrong things? I once spent eight days in a remote spot in the Ontario wilderness, a hundred miles north of where the road ends. I went outside almost every night, hoping to see the northern lights as I had seen them once before, full of fire and color. They weren’t there and I was disappointed, even though the sky was magnificent, filled with stars that burned white hot and lit up the night. Because I was expecting one thing, I almost missed another.
Something similar happens at Christmas. We expect Hollywood and miss holiness. We expect presents and ignore God’s presence. We look for gifts but overlook the Gift that came wrapped in human flesh.
Matt Kooi, the Director of Spectrum Ministries in Tijuana, Mexico, once pointed out to me that even if Bethlehem is a disappointment to some tourists, it was the perfect place for Jesus to be born. True, the place was no great shakes when he arrived there, but then, neither were our lives. If dirty, crowded and inhospitable Bethlehem could provide a place for the King of kings to be born, cannot our lives, covered with dirt and crowded with cares and distractions, provide a place for the King of Kings to live?
It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t afraid of dirt.
So why do people keep going back to Bethlehem? What makes that little town a place that people the world over dream of visiting? It’s not its splendor or beauty, nor its great hotels or attractions. For two thousand years its one great attraction has been a person. He gives Bethlehem its meaning, its special beauty. He does the same for our lives.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/13/2015