This Is The Place Where Jesus Is

October 8th, 2009


The destination was Bethlehem. As a child I imagined it was full of wood crèches resembling Swiss ski lodges in the middle of rolling hills, dotted with woolly sheep. But I’d already seen enough of Israel on this trip to know that it wouldn’t meet my Sunday school expectations. Though I was prepared for the cheap souvenirs and tourists shouldering video cameras, I was still enthusiastic about seeing firsthand the place where the God who created the universe became screaming, infant flesh.

Our group walked across the square to the church at Bethlehem. It was actually a patchwork of different churches pieced together over the centuries, each trying to claim a portion of the site by erecting wall or a doorway. We entered the darkened sanctuary on the Eastern Orthodox side of the church. Straight ahead were ornate silver artwork, hanging candles, and antique icons. Off in a corner, a priest paced back and forth in silence—our guide said he’d seen this priest in the same place doing the same thing on each of his 10 or so tours through the church.

We were herded down stone steps to a well-lit cave where the Orthodox say Jesus was born. Nuns in white and sky blue habits were one of the few signs that this was more than a museum stop. After a few minutes we continued our tour to another part of the church and were greeted with a 30-foot tinfoil dove erected for the Christmas season.

The Reynolds Wrap bird was the last straw. I was overwhelmed by the crush of tourists and the museum-like quality of this place. I’d come hoping for an encounter with God and instead encountered international church culture, complete with tinsel trimmings.

Then I noticed a stairway at the back of the sanctuary. As the rest of the crowd moved to the front to examine the aluminum bird, I escaped to the catacombs further below. I needed to get away and figure out what was going on in my soul. Amidst the ancient tombs, it was quiet at last. The cool darkness was pierced by only a few rays of light and an occasional prayer candle. I wandered the dimly lit maze of former graves and breathed in the ancient air.

Moving further into the depths, I turned a corner and stumbled into a monk.

It took me a minute to figure out who he was; instead of the stereotypical brown sackcloth, he’d donned worn work clothes and a faded green canvas apron covered with wax drippings. He’d just finished chipping away the melted wax from the candles that tourists and pilgrims had lit. He looked up and smiled as he wiped his hands on his apron. Grasping my hand gently between his two worn ones, he spoke softly in a deep French accent, “You are searching, aren’t you?” A little taken aback, I politely nodded my head. He held onto my hand and quietly said, “Follow me.”

I was surprised at how his hand, so gnarled and weathered by years of labor, could be so gentle. I found myself trusting this stranger as he led me to the far end of the maze where no tourists were. We walked up a slight ramp to a door no bigger than four feet high and stopped. “You’re searching for Jesus, aren’t your?” I nodded. “This is it,” he said, smiling and patting my hand like a pleased grandfather. “This is the place where Jesus is. I cannot let you in right now. The door is locked. But this is where he was born.”

Joy was all over his face. The edges of his dark eyes crinkled as he smiled. He then turned and disappeared, leaving me alone with my thoughts. In the deserted tomb, beneath the patchwork of church culture, I was encountering God.

I dared not touch the little wooden door—I simply stood there, weeping silently. “Is this really the place where Jesus was born?” I wondered. “You’d never know it was here.” Then after five minutes of solitude, I was touched with sense of peace I’d never felt before. Of course this is where Jesus was born. Its humble, secret quality was so opposite from the fanfare and clamor of the museum above me—and fitting for the birth of a poor carpenter’s child.

The monk—wherever he was—knew it, too. I thought about his gentleness. His hands. His kind, open touch that helped me trust his guidance and his words. This old monk gave me a flesh and bone connection to an otherwise impersonal, superficial experience.

And isn’t that the reason why Jesus came to earth? To let us touch, reach, and know the untouchable, unreachable, unknowable God?

As I ascended the winding stone staircase to join the rest of the group, I was far, far away. Part of me wanted to tell the others what had happened, but I couldn’t—it was too powerful and too precious to even articulate.

It was also in those moments that I learned that the essence of youth ministry happens in the catacombs of the soul, deep beneath tinfoil programs and calendars crammed with events and appointments. Youth ministry is about taking young people by the hand and leading them to the door where Jesus is.

We can’t unlock the door for them—they must make that decision alone. All we can do is lead them there.

Just like an old monk in a wax-stained smock did for me.


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