If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windows. The river will run
clear, as we never know it,
and over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.
Travelling with a group of fellow students, it must be just over fifty years ago now since I visited Bethlehem.
Entering the church of the Nativity by the low little door felt very odd, and I suppose rather humbling as we each bent down and stumbled under the lintel...By contrast, the sense of space inside seemed quite amazing. But soon a guide began his practiced babble at us...no wonder only a handful chose to follow towards the steps leading down to “ye traditional cave, discovered centuries ago as the true birthplace of Jesus...yes, yes...ye ancient tradition...go slowly, slowly ...steps worn down by pilgrims back to time of Jesus... yes, yes... blessed be he...” ...so two or three of us began slowly down into semi darkness, the only light from intermittent flickering oil lamps, and our hands guided by the cold rough rock-face... ... until we heard the slight echoing slap of sandals coming up from below & paused to allow an Orthodox monk to pass... he stopped and smiled in greeting...and his whole face seemed to be shining with joy...something I vividly remember, even half a century later!
As small group slowly gathered in the traditional cave of Jesus birth, now hung with tapestries, and lit by oil lamps flickering before icons... and somehow, amidst the never-ending babble of strange fables from our guide, there was an underlying silence... ...a profound sense of going back in time... ...it no longer mattered whether Jesus was born in a cave deep below ground, in a stable, the back room of an inn, or a distant relative’s animal byre...maybe this marble slab did mark the spot, who knows? But a sense of peace and deep inner thankfulness that we were part of hundreds and thousands of people from all over the world who through the centuries had come to pray in this cave...this became for me one of those profound points in life where prayer has been valid.
This was before the constricting walls were built...and now I pray for another miracle of reconciliation...
“Three kings from Persian lands afar..to Jordan follow the pointing star...” this beautiful, stately carol with a tune that makes you feel as though they are rolling along high up on a camel, travelling day after day, rising before dawn to follow the star... at a pace befitting stately kings and their royal entourage... the stuff of nativity plays...
But maybe this sixth century mosaic in Ravenna is more reminiscent of St Matthew’s nativity story...
here three Maji : astronomers...astrologers...political advisors...wise men ? ... we know so little about them...but these three are clearly not kings...though they are dressed in Persian clothes...the clothes of wealthy courtiers maybe, advisors to kings ? ...watching the stars, drawing up the all-important horoscopes that show the most auspicious day and hour for holding important events, setting off on a journey, fighting a battle, or indeed discovering the birth of an important new leader...all part of their repertoire.
Last Christmas in Luke’s Gospel we read of nearby shepherds and angels, but Matthew chooses to tell of more exotic visitors from foreign lands...visitors who blunder into the king’s palace, presumably thinking the old king has died and they are looking for his heir ?
OOOps ! a mistake that later on cost many lives... and made Joseph and his family flee for their lives, living as refugees.