It was called “Bethlehem 2000.”
It was the largest public works project ever inaugurated in the “Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Starting in March, 1997, over 250 million dollars was invested in improving Bethlehem’s public buildings, roads, and utilities.
Millions more were spent on advertising and public relations.
It was all part of the preparations for the turn of the Millenium: 2000 years since the Birth of Jesus Christ.
Two million pilgrims and visitors were expected between Christmas 1999 and Easter 2001—but that turned out to be a serious miscalculation.
Over twice that many people came!
Even after 2000 years, Bethlehem was still a small town with a population of less than 20,000.
It was still a rest-stop on the road to Jerusalem.
With slightly more than 1000 hotel rooms, there was still a shortage of available rooms.
Visitors still had to be turned away—because there was “no room in the inn!”
Mayor Hanna Nasser best summed up the importance of Bethlehem when he said:
“Despite its small size, Bethlehem proves today that it is the most important of all cities in the world at this unique point in time.
“None other has what God gave us:
“The Birthplace of Jesus Christ.”
And it is that Birth—in Bethlehem—the most important Birth in all of history—that we celebrate tonight!
According to the accepted chronology, this is the 2016th Anniversary of the Nativity of Our Lord.
While it is certain that the Birth took place in Bethlehem, the date has been questioned by scholars.
It now seems that there may be a discrepancy of 4 or 5 years.
So, maybe—this is actually the 2021st or 2022nd Anniversary of Christ’s Birth!
Likewise—it now seems that there is another discrepancy.
The cover of tonight’s bulletin proclaims that this is the 64th Annual Christmas Eve Service at All Saints’ Episcopal Church.
But it has been brought to my attention that the first Christmas Eve Service in this church building—and the first service ever held by All Saints’ Church—was celebrated on December 24, 1952.
If that is true—then tonight is actually the 65th Annual Christmas Eve Service.
The only living persons who can verify that are Marcia Addison and Mike Turner—and maybe Harry Sullivan--for they were there!
So here’s the question:
Do the discrepancies matter?
The answer—in both cases—is not really.
The important thing is that Christ was born in Bethlehem—and that we are here tonight to celebrate that earth-shaking and life-changing event!
But that’s not all!
There is yet another anniversary that I need to acknowledge.
On December 24, 2006—ten years ago—I celebrated my first Christmas Eve Service at All Saints’.
It was one of my first services here.
And tonight I celebrate my last Christmas Eve Service—and my final service at All Saints’.
(Believe-it-or-not, I am the longest-serving priest in the history of All Saints’!)
So this Christmas Eve is a special one.
There is no discrepancy about that!
It marks a transition for me—into a blessed retirement;
And a transition for you—into a New Beginning for this parish—with a new priest that God will bring here.
For you and for me, then—God’s promise of New Birth and New Life will be fulfilled this Christmas.
Like any transition—including the Great Divide between B.C. and A.D. that took place on the First Christmas—this one is fraught with anxiety and uncertainty.
The Future—and the changes it will bring—may seem frightening.
But the angels’ song that we hear tonight herald’s God’s promise of “Peace on Earth, Good Will towards all.”
And we know we can trust that promise!
But—back to Bethlehem for a moment. Elizabeth and I have enduring memories from our visit to Bethlehem in 2008.
To see the Birthplace of Jesus, we left Jerusalem and traveled by bus to what is called “Manger Square.”
There, the Church of the Nativity is built over the grotto that is believed to be the exact spot of Christ’s Birth.
The Empress Helena—mother of Constantine the Great—built the first church on that location in the fourth century.
In that church, St. Jerome lived as he translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into the Latin Vulgate.
Then, in the sixth century, that church was destroyed—and re-built in its present form by the Emperor Justinian.
The curious thing about the Church of the Nativity is its entrance—which is less than four feet high!
It is called “The Door of Humility”—because one must literally “bow down” in order to get in.
And that is what Elizabeth and I did.
Once inside, the visitor descends one of two staircases that lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity—a rough cave that is about 10 feet by 35 feet in area.
A silver star on the floor before the altar bears a Latin inscription which reads:
“Here—Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.”
Through the centuries, pilgrims have worn the stone of the cave’s floor smooth—by kneeling to kiss the exact spot where the Savior became Incarnate.
“The Door of Humility” that I mentioned originally served a practical purpose.
It was intended to prevent horsemen from riding into the church—and thereby desecrating it.
But it also has a spiritual meaning.
As I said—it is necessary for one to bow down—almost upon one’s knees—in order to enter the church.
That is fitting and proper—because bowing down—in humility and awe—is the only way we can approach the Incarnate Lord.
On bended knee is the only way we can celebrate his Nativity.
Entering through “The Door of Humility” is
the only way we can “worship Christ, the New-Born King” tonight!
And while I’m on the subject of worshipping Christ the New-Born King, allow me say a word about incense.
Frankincense was present on the First Christmas—as one of the gifts of the Magi—and it has been used at Christmas celebrations ever since.
As the hymn “We Three Kings” correctly points out--incense points to the deity of Christ.
Incense has been used in virtually every culture and every religion to worship the Deity—however the Deity has been conceived.
The Old Testament, for example, asserts that God enjoys “sweet-smelling odors”—just as his human creations do—and it actually provides a recipe for making the scent that God prefers.
The New Testament Book of Revelation says that the prayers of the faithful rise up to God’s throne in Heaven—like the fragrant smoke of incense wafting heavenward.
So incense is symbolic of prayer and worship—and that is why the Church uses incense—especially at Christmas and Easter.
This year—for the first time—I decided to refrain from using incense on Christmas Eve.
I don’t know why, exactly.
Maybe I just didn’t want to mess with it.
Or maybe I didn’t want to hear the comments I always get.
In any case, many of us do have allergies.
So you can consider it my Christmas gift to you tonight!
But in so doing —I hope we will all remember the meaning behind the incense—and worship Jesus Christ as our God and King.
Finally—as I bid you all a fond farewell on this—my 11th Christmas Eve with you—let me remind you one last time of the most familiar—and perhaps the most important verse in all of Scripture: John 3:16.
Now let me un-pack that for you:
John 3:16 is the real “Good Tidings of Great Joy”—the “Gospel in miniature”—as Martin Luther said.
It’s the only reason we celebrate Christmas.
John 3:16 has been the key-stone of my ministry for 40 years--and I leave it with you tonight—as my final word.
(Say it again.)