A family tradition is to take a walk through Bethlehem sponsored by St. John United Methodist Church in Atlanta. It’s usually held on the first weekend of December and this year didn’t disappoint. Centurions at the city gates yelled out, “Sign the Census. Sign the Census.”
After signing the scrolls on the table lit only by candlelight, we entered the city. It was bustling with music, drumbeats and people all over the place. In one corner was a woman selling bread. Another market vendor sold bright jewelry but gave beautiful precious stones to the children. Soldiers urged people along to pay their taxes. A group of children were getting their Hebrew lessons. One woman came up and asked us if we had seen the bright star in the sky.
We were ushered to the room to pay our taxes. While there, we were told there was no room in any of the inns nearby.
As we exit the city, there are three angels on the roof singing “Emmanuel.” Afterwards, our attendtion is focused on the stable and a live nativity with Mary, Joseph, a baby (this time a real live baby!). It’s cold outside and we feel for the actors having to perform on such an evening. Yet, it is a reminder that it may have been that cold or colder when Baby Jesus was born. As children sit on the hay bales, a donkey grazes nearby. The three wise men arrive carrying their gifts to the new born king. As the song concludes, the church minister welcomes us and invites us into the sanctuary for music, the chapel for prayers and the fellowship hall for cookies and hot chocolate.
We head into the narthex of the sanctuary where the lights are dimmed low. Christmas carols come from the piano in the sanctuary. All is calm. Candles are ablaze and the altar is flanked by two Christmon trees. Common in the United Methodist church, these are green Christmas trees with white lights and white and gold ornaments. Although it sounds plain, it is beautiful. A few people sit on the pews and listen to the musician. It’s peaceful in here, but the children don’t want any part of it.
The fragrance of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies fill the air upon entering fellowship hall. Served on platters are treats of all shapes and sizes: sugar cookies, chocolate dipped pretzels, brownies, lemon bars and of course, the chocolate chip cookies. The lady who offered us goodies informs us that there is a children’s area with crafts. Taking our cookies and hot chocolate to the far corner, we are some of the first to arrive. One child is trying on headscarbes from biblical times. Coloring pages and crayons are on another table. My little neighbor makes a beeline for the big craft table. Using two popsicle sticks, children are instructed to decorate and glue the manger to a sheet of construction paper. After adding hay, they add the Baby Jesus and a blanket to cover him. In the background, the Charlie Brown Christmas Special plays on a nearby screen.
We get one last round of drinks – this time hot apple cider before heading out. Two women have a table set up for donations to the Community Action Center in nearby Sandy Springs. They thank us for visiting. But I thank them. Without this experience, it wouldn’t feel like Christmas. For more information, visit http://stjohnatlanta.org.