If I asked you what you wanted for Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or your birthday, what would you say? Now you might answer: a very expensive car, a million dollars, enough money to pay off all my bills, a home I own in Santa Barbara, a good job, a husband, a wife, or just plain fun. When we were younger this question was perhaps easier to answer. Then we wanted simple things like toys, clothes, or video games. But now what do you want?
No I mean it. What do you really want? If you could have anything in the world that you wanted as a gift right now, what would it be? I thought about this question recently, and I think I received an answer. As I watched from a 180 degree view of the southeastern Santa Barbara skies, l experienced an amazing thing. I sensed the very presence of Jesus.
During this season many of us, whether Christian or not, reflect on just what it means to celebrate Christmas. For me the highlight of celebrating came just two years ago when I was invited to visit Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. I purchased my ticket, took off from LAX, and flew first to London and then on to Tel Aviv. My invitation was so sudden that I did not have much time to plan, so I literally landed in Israel without a place to stay, trusting that I would find a hotel. Well, my trust and faith were richly rewarded as I ended up at the Tel Aviv Renaissance Hotel in a beautiful room overlooking the Mediterranean Sea! But the glory of the trip was actually visiting the Church of the Nativity in Palestine.
The church is built on top of a cave that is said to be the actual birthplace of Jesus. Unlike the manger scenes of “modern” Christmases, this cave is not in European or American farmland. You see, this cave is a lowly, cold, and dark place, and it lies on the shores of the Dead Sea, and the Dead Sea is literally the lowest place on Earth! In terms of locations on Earth, you cannot get any lower than this place. If this cave had had a zip code it would have been the worst of the worst of zip codes in a totally un-prime location. You could not have given away this “manger” home. And yet angels from the high places are said to have announced the birth to shepherds as “good news of great joy to all people … and peace on earth.”
And for many it has been good news of great joy which still amazes me that someone born in a place so humble and so lowly even now and so distant and clearly unknown even then, could actually bring “great joy.” Why is that?
Only a few people can enter the birth cave at any one time, and you cannot get in without bending. First, you must bend and walk down a few very narrow dark stairs, and then you must bend again, as your head and body enter the narrow door that leads to the place where Jesus was born. As I entered this place and sat in the little “room,” now filled with ornate trappings of gold and silver vessels, I reflected on its actual structure, and I wept. I wept as I realized that it was just an earthen vessel made of black rock.
I was about to leave the cave when I spotted a large woman who was also weeping. Our eyes met, and as if we had known each other all our lives and had planned to meet in that very “room,” we tried to speak what our hearts were feeling. She spoke only Russian and no English, and so we just stood and held each other tightly and wept and spoke in our own ways of “So humble,” “So humble and lowly — a place.” And even now as I recall this experience, it brings me great peace because a gift of peace was given.
So what do you really want? I suggest it is great joy and that no matter what your faith tradition or lack of faith tradition, great joy is such a fine matter of your heart. So N–Joy this day and every single day in this brand new, never before seen New Year of 2014.
I love you very much! Write me and share your Joys.
Akivah Northern is a certified Family Wellness Trainer and holds a Master in Divinity from Yale. Her biweekly column explores the deeper heart in all its dimensions. She welcomes heartfelt questions from readers of all ages at firstname.lastname@example.org.