“Hold on to the railing,” our guide said as we wound down the stairs of the Church of the Nativity to the Grotto. “These steps are centuries old and very tricky.”
The church, built under the direction of Saint Helena, has been used continuously since 333 AD. St. Helena, using her influence as the mother of Constantine, Emperor of Rome, had this sanctuary built over the site where she believed Jesus had been born.
So, beneath this ancient church, is a cave—a cave that, back in first century Jerusalem, looked like any other inner-city cave. As the city grew up around it, the cave found a job—you know, made itself useful. Situated next to an inn, it offered its services to the innkeeper as a stable for sheltering his animals. The cave would have been a quiet, peaceful place, a place where guests often stayed when the inn reached capacity.
Today, a silver star on the floor of that cave marks the spot where St. Helena believed Mary gave birth. Another niche is considered to be the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger.
True? Hard to say.
To me, whether the Grotto of the Nativity is the real, exact place where Jesus was born is not the point. I don’t really care much about such particulars. This I know: for more than 19 centuries, believers have come to this place to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They have come from far, far away, and from right next door, on donkey-back, on camel-back and on Amtrak. They have come: speaking Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Swahili, Russian, even English. They have come in a steady stream of expectation, watching their step and holding onto the railing, to worship in this place. It's like an Advent Devotion come to life!
So as I stepped carefully on those tricky centuries-old stairs, my spirit reached out to the great crowd of witnesses there in that grotto with me. I turned to face the silver star and, joining my voice with theirs, I prayed, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace, good will to all people.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,(Originally published in my 2008 Christmas letter.)
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke 2:13-15 (NRSV)
Lately, I can hardly scroll through the headlines without feeling a sense of despair. It so often seems that we are moving away from the holy day described in Micah 4:6-13. We witness the lame and afflicted overwhelmed by the waters of hurricane-borne floods and the flames of rogue forest fires. We see them shut out by institutional systems that deny their worth. We listen as wealthy power-brokers amplify their own significance while diminishing those Micah promises will be redeemed.
It’s into this cacophony that John the Revelator calls God’s people to turn away from luxury and influence and look to the authority of heaven. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that John has been doing a bit too much stargazing. According to my newsfeed, the winning team is the one with money and power, not the one with poverty and disenfranchisement.
Reading these texts in the context of modern injustices, I listen as Micah speaks of labor pains and John speaks of destruction; I wonder: what will be born of this destruction? What redemption lies on the other side of all this misery and injustice?
Oft quoted American minister and reformer Theodore Parker (1810-1860) said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, . . . [but] it bends towards justice.” That’s a lovely sentiment, indeed one of my favorite quotes. But first, does that arc have to be so ridiculously long and second, what of the arc of pain? Where is it headed?
On December 5, 2016, Judge Clifton Newman declared a mistrial in the case of Michael Slager, the former Charleston, SC police officer accused of murdering 50-year-old Walter Scott. Judy Scott, Walter’s mother, surely stood on the arc of pain when she received the news of the verdict. Yet she strode forward and declared,
Today I'm not sad. And I want you to know why I'm not sad. Because Jesus is on the inside and I know that justice will be served because the God that I serve, he is able. . .. God is my strength and I know without a doubt that he is a just God and injustice will not prevail. . .. I’m just waiting on the Lord. I'm just gonna rest in the Lord. I'm gonna rest in the Lord ‘cause you see, . . . there's something about Jesus, when he's on the inside I fear not. . ..
And as she spoke, the arc of pain bent towards hope, towards righteousness.
Here at the beginning of the Advent season, as we await the coming of King Jesus, hear the good news: labor has begun and Hope will be born. “’Cause you see, . . . there’s something about Jesus.”
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Romans 12:9-12
 According to his Wikipedia bio, Parker lent words to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and most certainly to Martin Luther King Jr’s “Where Do we Go from Here” speech when King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Sources for update:/justice/2016/12/05/walter-scott-family-reaction-slager-mistrial-sot.cnn
UPDATE: On May 2, 2017, Michael Slager plead guilty to federal civil rights charges, accepting responsibility for the shooting death of Walter Scott. On December 7, 2017, Slager was sentenced to 20 years for the second degree murder. According to abcnews.com, "At one point during the sentencing Scott's mother looked the former officer in the eye and told him she forgave him. Families on both sides of the court burst into tears." (See "Ex-cop Michael Slager sentenced to 20 years . . . " below.) Slager is serving his sentence in a low-security prison in Colorado.
Sources for update:
Original (sans update and other minor edits) written for and published in Gardner-Webb University's 2017 Advent Devotional.