Bethlehem, Pa., was named by its Moravian founders after their first communion service was held on Christmas Eve. Today "the Christmas city" offers a delightful array of Moravian Christmas traditions, including trombone choirs and elaborate manger scenes created in the living rooms of the gracious homes lining the old part of the city.
Each year, a nativity scene is erected on the plaza between the public library and city hall, dominated by a huge lighted star on the mountain overlooking the Lehigh River to the south. Once during my time as pastor in nearby Easton, the newspaper reported that the figure of Jesus had been stolen. Jesus was eventually located nearby, where the vandals had left him and, to avoid a recurrence, the city mothers and fathers bolted Jesus to the manger after they returned him to the plaza.
The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are captivating. They have inspired artists, musicians and storytellers for generations, and we continue to be drawn to the familiar scenes that speak of God's vulnerable incarnation in the infant Jesus. The temptation, of course, is to make Jesus a captive of the manger, to bolt him there. Therefore, it is good that Advent precedes Christmas, that the time to prepare for the one "born of the Virgin Mary" also is a time to be reminded that "he will come again to judge the living and the dead." As Halford Luccock of Yale Divinity School wrote years ago, the point of the story is that "the baby grew up."
It is easy to see why we'd be happy to keep Jesus bolted to the manger. Who wants a judge meddling in the greed that denies children health care, or a decent home or a safe school? Who wants a judge challenging our easy resort to violence as the only way to global security? Who wants a judge asking us awkward questions about why we treat the creation as little more than a convenience store filled with raw materials to satisfy our endless desire? Who wants a judge holding up a mirror to the deceits and betrayals of our personal lives? Better to keep Jesus bolted in the manger.
This summer I visited the original Bethlehem and walked the streets of old Cairo, where Coptic churches mark the site of the Holy Family's refuge from Herod's murderous plot. The site where the shepherds are said to have heard the angels' promise of peace is now within a few hundred yards of the security fence Israel is building to wall in the Palestinians of the West Bank. Those Coptic churches remind us that one who would be crucified on a hill in Jerusalem was almost crucified in his crib.
To be fair, the city officials in Bethlehem, Pa., only wanted to keep their creche intact for the tourists who flock there each December. But, from the beginning, our response to Jesus has been an ambiguous mixture of adoration and containment. "Let us go to Bethlehem to see." Yes, let us go even this year. But let us also be ready to go to Egypt, Nazareth and Jerusalem and to every other place where the unbolted Lord confronts us with the costly grace of our redemption.
The Rev. John H. Thomas is the UCC's general minister and president.