During the 2018 Advent season, weekly reflections will be posted from the Acting General Secretary and Associate General Secretaries of American Baptist Churches USA. Each reflection will be posted prior to the Sundays in Advent. Below is a reflection written by Associate General Secretary Patricia Hernandez. Read the reflection posted for the first week of Advent here. Read the reflection posted for the second week of Advent here. Read the reflection posted for the third week of Advent here.
All are Welcome!
God loves ALL and so do we!
Like many churches, my home congregation has a sign out in front. For the Christmas season, the youth were invited to come up with a message to share. After a lively discussion they finally settled on:
“All are Welcome! God loves all and so do we!”
Our church was founded in what was originally the main town center of Reston, Virginia, on the margins of Washington DC. We regularly have people from across nations and around the world visiting. The kids’ enthusiastic welcome and warm embrace was a message fit for world-wide travelers and long-term locals.
Their message drew me back to my own travels and a Christmas spent halfway around the world, many years ago.
Following college, I spent some time living on a kibbutz in Israel, participating in a program to deepen understanding about Jewish history and heritage. As Christmas drew near my friends and I, all wrestling with matters of faith and seeking to understand the true meaning of Christmas, decided to journey to Bethlehem, to the source of this momentous event.
It was a long journey from our kibbutz in the north of the Negev, but we were determined to find the true meaning of Christmas. So journey we did.
When we finally arrived in Bethlehem, the birthplace of this Prince of Peace, we were startled to see a surge of soldiers wielding their weapons of war. The whole city of Bethlehem had been blockaded and soldiers stood watch at each checkpoint. Getting in meant waiting in line to be padded and probed, searched and secured, questioned and quizzed. no warm welcome this!
Once through, we followed a growing procession of pilgrims down into a place we soon found out was Manger Square, replete with lights, cameras, and choirs from around the world, a festival fit for a King, but we were seeking the Prince of Peace…
The church—Church of the Nativity– was not hard to find. Indeed, there was already a long line of people outside, extending from the divinely decorated doors—still closed to the public—around the building and down one long side. We too took our place. As we were watching and waiting, bits and pieces of other conversations in different languages filled our ears. At first everything was a mishmash of meaningless words and expressions. But one word kept coming up again and again: ticket.
“Ticket!” we thought. A ticket?? You need a ticket to get into church???!!!
The very idea of needing a ticket to get into a church—especially on Christmas Eve!—seemed preposterous to us…until we began to closely look around, and saw, much to our dismay, that indeed, people seemed to be holding little pieces of paper
Part of a dream
A pass to Christmas.
As we asked around, we found that these tickets had been given out months ago, many going to distinguished dignitaries,
But not to us.
In desperation, we flagged down one of the priests prayerfully pacing the grounds of the church. Blurting out that we just wanted to find Christmas and asking whether there was any way we could get in, the priest simply shook his head.
No room in the Inn.
So we stood outside the gate,
security guards posted to keep us out.
The door was closed to us, no welcome sign or warm embrace.
There was no room for us.
No room in the Inn.
Not wanting to give up, we asked around about other services and eventually had a list of places to try.
Barred from the birth in Bethlehem
Rejected and refused
We headed into the darkness, searching for the Light of the world.
Such began a journey that took us from one church to another,
Each one another closed door
Another barred opening
Another gate guarded.
No warm welcome
No sign to invite us in
No message of embrace
We were clearly the wrong kind of people, dressed the wrong kind of way, apparently looking for the wrong kind of thing. In any event, there was no room for us. No room in the Inn.
Against all reason and rationale, we decided to head towards the last church on our list.
Arriving late—it must have been well past midnight by now—the church was all closed up. There were no lights, and no sign of life. Anywhere.
Just what we had figured.
As we were about to turn away for the last time,
an elderly couple approached, broken and bent over.
We asked this cane carrying couple if they knew anything about a service here.
Smiling, unbending, they said yes, there would be one though not too many people came.
They were a small, dwindling French-Catholic congregation who liked to have the service late, in the stillness of the night. We asked if we could worship with them and holding our breath, we received a surprised and pleased,
“Why, yes, of course, “Anyone may come!”
Finally, a door had been opened to us!
Barriers were broken
Locks let loose
windows wildly flung open
and somewhere a door delicately opened
As we went through that opened door, the lights came on and before us was baby Jesus’ arms wide open welcoming us—jeans and all—to his birth.
Together, we worshipped
Jew and Gentile
Men and women
Young and old
Members and nonmembers
Here in this open sanctuary,
in the least expected and obvious place,
in the dark recesses of a small, obscure, French Catholic church
on the border of Bethlehem,
Christ was born once again and the truth of Christmas was made known to us all:
That Christ comes to those darkest places in our lives,
those closed doors and opens them, bringing in light and new life.
No matter who you are.
No matter what you do.
No matter where you come from,
In the words of the kids’ sign:
“All are welcome. God loves you and so do we!”
Associate General Secretary for Women in Ministry and Transition Ministries
American Baptist Churches USA