The members of a United Church of Christ congregation in Newark, Ohio offered their friends, families and community an unusual and moving gift on the first Sunday of Advent. A gift of love for neighbor, and a realistic reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.
St. John's United Church of Christ marked the beginning of the season on Sunday, Dec. 3 with a living, breathing Bethlehem Marketplace. The live-action portrayal of life in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth involved the time and talents of more than 100 people in the church community.
"This takes most of the congregation, and there's a place for everyone," said Julie Kroah, Christian Education Director at St. John's and publicity chairperson for the Bethlehem Marketplace. "The oldest participant is in his 90's and the youngest is 5 weeks old." In fact, four generations of one family were pressed into service on Sunday.
When visitors came into the sanctuary, they were greeted with song, serenaded by church choirs and other musical groups. As their time came to travel to the marketplace, they were met by Roman soldiers, and escorted into the basement of the church set up as Bethlehem would have looked 2000 years ago.
St. John's guests got an opportunity to walk through the marketplace, to experience how people lived and worked at the time of Jesus' birth. Potters, weavers, bakers, tent makers and tailors, tanners and animal trainers all set up in different booths, interacting with visiting travelers and with each other. There were prophets, begging children, and money changers, with members of the church stepping into all those roles.
"We wanted to do it because we wanted to remind our community what the real meaning of Christmas is," said Terry Hill, who portrayed an animal trader. "It also helps us to remember," said his wife Frances, charged with the beggar children. "It is such a gift to give."
At the time of that first Christmas, Bethlehem was a place where merchants, selling their wares between Jerusalem and Hebron, could stop for provisions. The busy marketplace was the spot to hear all the latest news and gossip during a time of turmoil. Roman legions were everywhere trying to control a proud Jewish people.There was talk of the coming Messiah.
On Dec. 3, those participating in the portrayal came to worship in costume. Kroah played a baker. "It's the easiest service to get ready for, no jewelry, no makeup, and you don't do your hair," she said.
Adding to the authenticity would be the live animals — donkeys, sheep and cows gathered in the stable in the basement of the church.
"I like to say it's the sights, sounds and smells of the Bethlehem marketplace," Kroah continued. "It's loud, it's noisy with people haggling and arguing who has the best goods. It's fun, and it's interactive. Everybody has to sign the census. Just like Joseph."
But it's also spiritual, meaningful and realistic. Especially as visitors pass the Inn where there was no room and glimpse the Holy Family in the stable.
"No matter how much fun people are having, it gets very solemn and quiet when they get to that stable. Just seeing that baby there," Kroah said. "Some people leave in tears."
The idea of the Bethlehem Marketplace was brought to St. John's in 1986 by two members inspired by another marketplace they'd experienced in New York. The project, a tremendous undertaking by the entire church, has become a tradition in Newark, recreated more than a 15 times in 31 years, and drawing more than 15,000 visitors in that time.
This year, close to 500 people came through the church doors. The free tours began at 1:00 p.m. and continued for three hours. Guests, encouraged to bring non-perishable food items or monetary gifts for the Licking County Food Pantry Network, donated over $650 and more than 400 pounds of food. Each visitor left the experience with a handmade parting gift crafted by the people of the congregation, and a Christmas memory. One that one visitor said, makes the miracle of Jesus more real.
"St. John's is from the Evangelical heritage of the UCC," said Elaine Gard, one of 'women at the well' and project co-coordinators. "Our job is to tell the Good News of God's redeeming love through Jesus Christ. The Marketplace is a really fun way to do that. I'm no 'thespian', but I enjoy the fellowship with other members of our church family. After 31 years, it's tradition – and a good one."
A gift of love, and of community, that brought neighbors together to celebrate the joy of the savior, and to feel the wonder and thrill of God's gift to us – then and now.
"It's such a good feeling knowing you are telling the story of Jesus coming into the world," Kroah said. "Giving a small glimpse of what it might have been like at that special time. Reminding people of the true meaning of Christmas."