[Symbol] – Bethlehem
[A Story relating to the Symbol]
A Christmas Story
Any good Christmas story must have several ingredients—the story of the Savior’s birth, a human heart changed, faith renewed, or faith restored—all intermixed to lift our spirits and teach us what the Lord desires us to know. My Christmas story is perhaps one that you might not expect, but it’s one that forever changed who I am.
I have walked where the Savior walked. I have looked over the waters of the Sea of Galilee and watched the fishermen cast their nets. I have visited the Garden of Gethsemane and walked among the ancient olive trees. I have stood on the hill of Golgotha, the site of His crucifixion, overlooking the city of Jerusalem.
But more than this, I have learned that whether or not you or I have visited the physical places where the Savior lived, we must all come to understand who He is in our hearts.
Months after I proudly earned my driver’s license in Utah, my family moved to Israel in August 1987. It was no surprise. In fact, the summer before when my father first learned of the opportunity to teach for a year at the BYU Center in Jerusalem, he asked us to fast and pray as a family. So we did, and we all felt “good” about the decision. But I soon discovered that making a decision at fifteen and living that decision at sixteen were two different things.
Entering my junior year of high school in a new school, I quickly drew attention. I was the “new girl,” the American. The private Anglican school that I attended was in downtown Jerusalem, and my younger brother and sister and I took a bus from our apartment to the school each day. Passing through neighborhoods of Orthodox Jewish families, we swiftly learned that if we wanted to wear shorts to school, we had to change after we got off the bus. Modesty was taken to the next level in this country. The local Orthodox Jewish women covered from their ankles up to their wrists. My sister and I also soon discovered that unless we wanted to be sitting by a twenty-something-year-old Israeli soldier carrying a loaded AK-47, we had to sit together, which left my brother to share a seat with a soldier many times.
My high school class was small—only nineteen students were in my grade. It didn’t take long for the questions to come once they found out that I was a Mormon. I wore a U2 T-shirt like any average American girl, and when my new friends noticed, they immediately wondered if I was “religious.” Religious? I didn’t understand. Did I go to church? Yes. I’d been a Mormon my whole life, lived in an average city in Utah, and hadn’t really committed any wrongs besides fighting with my sister. Yet here in a foreign country, I was suddenly faced with questions on the status of my faith.
In time, the puzzle pieces came together. I learned that other Mormons who had gone to that school hadn’t exactly lived the values that members of our faith claim to uphold. When my classmates had seen the rock-band insignia, they had equated a rock-band fan with someone who also enjoyed things that a rock star did—such as drinking alcohol. So my new friends wanted to know on which side of the fence I sat. They wanted to know if I was a faithful Mormon or if I had strayed from Mormon values.
It was one of the defining moments in my life when I realized that I needed to make a decision. Would I represent my faith and stand as a witness, or would I go along with the often inappropriate behavior of many other teenagers?
I thought back to when I’d received my patriarchal blessing just months before. I had fasted all night and day—until about the only thing I had energy to do was sleep. But I had made it to the home of the patriarch with my family. During the blessing, I distinctly remember wondering how the patriarch could know so much about me. But even more powerful was the presence of the Spirit and the emotions that flooded through me.
Remembering this experience brought back the same emotions and the same assurance that the Lord had testified to me of the truthfulness of His gospel. I couldn’t deny it.
Coming from the average Utah neighborhood, I had yet to face real temptation. All of my friends were on the straight and narrow like I was. The boys I’d dated so far had been respectful. I had attended many youth firesides where the main topic seemed to be “peer pressure.” It made me laugh sometimes because I was certainly independent. No one was going to tell me what to do or force me to do anything I didn’t want to do.
But the questions suddenly pressed on me: What did I want? Who was I? And what choices did I need to make to get where I wanted to go? These were weighty questions for my sixteen-year-old mind, but as I was thrust into the spotlight at this new school, I couldn’t hide behind my Mormon friends, or even my parents, any longer.
October came, and one of the lovely benefits of living in the midst of a Jewish community was that school was let out for two weeks to commemorate Sukkot—a Jewish holiday. My family and I traveled about the countryside, visiting the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth. One day we traveled to the Arab town of Bethlehem. The town was a bustling tourist spot, and we were bombarded by street sellers before entering the cool, dark Church of the Nativity, which was built over the “holy site” of Christ’s birth.
Ducking to enter through the four-foot-high doorway, I was first struck by the gloomy lighting and then the smell of incense. Every section of the church was claimed by a different Christian religion—each with its own icons and collections of burning candles. We followed a group down the stairs until we reached a small room underground—a room that was believed to be the cave in which the animals had been kept. It was quite dank, but the atmosphere was quiet, reverent somehow.
The room narrowed into a small stone alcove where a silver star had been nailed to the marble floor. An iron rail separated the location of the star from the pressing onlookers. The star, placed by the Roman Catholic Church in 1717, marked the location where Christ’s manger had supposedly stood. I looked around at the group of people and marveled how we could all come from different countries, hold different faiths, yet still be in the same room with the same thoughts.
I watched as others bowed before the grotto and kissed the ground. Some took pictures. Others seemed to be meditating. I stood there, waiting for an epiphany of sorts. I’m here, I thought. This is where the Savior Himself was born, fulfilling thousands of years of prophecies. Bringing to fulfillment the law of sacrifice. Redeeming all of mankind. Now what?
Still, I watched the others, more focused on their actions than the shiny symbol of the past on the floor. The tourists continued milling about, some leaving, more arriving. Words were whispered, but mostly there was silence accompanied by the sound of quiet shuffling.
Soon, it was time to go. We ascended the stone steps that took us to the altar of the church and then stepped back outside into the glaring sunlight. Cars honked, tourists bustled, and children younger than me held up souvenirs to sell. How can this be one of the holiest spots in the world? I wondered as we skirted a group of police officers who were blocking off a smoking car. Whether the smoke was caused by a bomb or some stray tear gas, we didn’t stay around long enough to find out. Tourists started moving to their buses—Bethlehem was closing for the day, and curfew was near.
As we drove back to Jerusalem along the windy, narrow road, I thought about that silver star and the church that had been erected above it. I wondered why I hadn’t been bowled over by the Spirit. I had expected an experience similar to the one I’d had when receiving my patriarchal blessing. All at once, the answer seemed simple. The truth of the gospel was not a place. It was a state of being.
My life in Jerusalem moved steadily forward, but this epiphany remained in the back of my mind, giving me the foundation I needed when faced with temptations. On the weekends, I’d meet my friends “in town,” where the bustle of nightlife attracted many groups of teenagers. There were no age restrictions at the local clubs, and a sixteen-year-old American girl could order alcohol as well as any adult. It was quite amusing that my friends would say no for me. Whenever a new person would join our table and offer to pay for a round of drinks, one of my friends would pipe up and say, “Oh, she doesn’t drink. She’s religious.” I was overwhelmed by the respect my friends had shown me and how peer pressure was turned on its ugly head. I realized that the Lord had blessed me with new friends—friends who were willing to stick up for me. Although they came from various backgrounds, they accepted my differences.
December came—a time when religious pilgrims from all over the world congregate at Jerusalem, and more specifically, Bethlehem. Candlelight services are held all week long leading up to Christmas Day. My family accompanied the BYU student group to a location just outside of Bethlehem to avoid the tourist menagerie. There are several hillsides that are termed affectionately “Shepherd’s Hill,” even if from year to year the actual location of the hill changes for different student groups.
Sitting on the hillside among the olive trees and listening to the bleating of the nearby flock of sheep, I felt as if time stood still. The sun set upon the cool evening as the BYU students stood one by one, testifying of the Savior. I listened with half an ear, the other part of me dwelling upon the city in the distance—Bethlehem. It wasn’t hard to imagine what it might have been like on that night when the angel brought good news to the shepherds. At first, they were afraid. And until the angel told them to fear not, for the news he brought was “good tidings of great joy,” the shepherds didn’t know how to react (Luke 2:10).
What impressed me the most was that they overcame their fear and believed. Then they put their beliefs into action. They didn’t doubt or question but hurried into Bethlehem to visit Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Child. And they didn’t stop there. After they had seen the Savior, the shepherds “made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:17). They testified of Christ in only the way humble shepherds could: by sharing their personal witnesses. That was something I could do through my choices around my school friends. By what I said or how I acted, I would essentially be sharing my beliefs.
Night was drawing close, and I gazed across the landscape as the town of Bethlehem started to light up. At that very moment, I realized I was a witness too. An angel wasn’t standing before me, but I was surrounded by those who were testifying of Christ, just as the angel had done two thousand years before.
Did I have to actually see an angel or the Christ child myself to be a witness? Just two years before, Elder Bruce R. McConkie had said something that has never left me: “I am one of his witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears. But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God’s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way” (“The Purifying Power of Gethsemane,” Ensign, May 1985, 9).
Whether sitting on a hillside overlooking Bethlehem or trudging through the dusty back roads of Nazareth or gazing across the Sea of Galilee, I knew that my testimony of the Savior and the true meaning of Christmas didn’t come from my surroundings but from within. Like Elder McConkie, I didn’t need to see the Savior Himself to have faith in Him and act as a witness. It didn’t matter whether I’d walked where Christ had walked or seen the place where He had been born, but it did matter how I lived. Although Christmas may only come once a year, the influence of the Savior affects me every day. I have come to understand that my choices do make a difference. My choices have become my witness to the world.
[Song] O Little Town of Bethlehem
[Scripture] Luke 2:4
And joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.
[Challenge – Be Still] – There is a carol that described Bethlehem on the night of the Saviour’s birth as a little town where all was still, and silent. The Saviour could’ve chosen to be born in a big city in a palace but he chose to be born in a humble manger in a little town to humble parents with meagre living. Bethlehem represents a state of humbleness and peace. Find one way today to be quiet and still enough to feel God’s love and peace. Let go of one thing that causes you to be anxious, angry, or afraid.
[Article relating to the challenge]
Be at Peace
By Elder D. Todd Christofferson
Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
I hope you will take time this Christmas season to sit for a few quiet moments and let the Saviour’s Spirit warm you and reassure you of the worthiness of your service, your offering, and your life.
It’s always encouraging for me to contemplate the offering of service and sacrifice that Latter-day Saints make to their families, their wards, and their Heavenly Father. It’s a consecrated, sacred thing. I don’t believe there’s a higher honor that can come to us than that the Lord would consider our offering as worthy and appropriate and that He would respect and receive it.
That is the great commendation of the Father to the Son when He refers to Him as “my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (3 Nephi 11:7; see also Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 9:35; D&C 93:15; Joseph Smith—History 1:17). What a beautiful title. What greater honor could there be than that God would say to you, “My beloved son” or “My beloved daughter,” and that you would receive His commendation that your offering is acceptable to Him, “in whom I am well pleased.”
I pray at this Christmas season that you might have some sense of the Lord’s regard for your offering, some sense of how you stand in His eyes, some sense of the beloved status you occupy as His son or His daughter. And I pray that knowledge of that status may give you a great deal of comfort, reassurance, and confidence that you are approved in His eyes.
The Saviour’s Birth
When we talk about the birth of Jesus Christ, we appropriately reflect on what was to follow. His birth was infinitely significant because of the things He would experience and suffer so that He might better succor us—all culminating in His Crucifixion and Resurrection (see Alma 7:11–12). But His mission also included the beauty of His service, the miracles of His ministry, the relief He brought to the suffering, and the joy He offered—and still offers—to the mourning.
I also like to think of what comes later. Two of my favorite verses speaking of that time are found at the end of chapter 7 in the book of Revelation:
“They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.
“For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16–17; see also 21:4).
That captures for me the holy hope of what is coming, of what it will be like during the great Millennium and the celestial reign of Christ that follows.
With all of that to come, though, I think it’s appropriate this time of year to just think about that baby in the manger. Don’t be too overwhelmed or occupied with what is to come; just think about that little baby. Take a quiet, peaceful moment to ponder the beginning of His life—the culmination of heavenly prophecy but the earthly beginning for Him.
Take time to relax, be at peace, and see this little child in your mind. Do not be too concerned or overwhelmed with what is coming in His life or in yours. Instead, take a peaceful moment to contemplate perhaps the most serene moment in the history of the world—when all of heaven rejoiced with the message “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).
Let the Spirit Warm You
Some years ago I heard a radio interview featuring Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop in South Africa. He had just published a book with his daughter about the reconciliation that had taken place in South Africa following apartheid.1 Basically, the book’s message is that there is good in all people.
During the interview the host asked a perceptive, inspired question of Bishop Tutu: “Have you found that your relationship to God has changed as you’ve grown older?”
Bishop Tutu paused and then said, “Yes. I am learning to shut up more in the presence of God.”
He recalled that when he prayed in his earlier years, he did so with a list of requests and solicitudes. He would approach heaven with what he called “a kind of shopping list.” But now, he said, “I think [I am] trying to grow in just being there. Like when you sit in front of a fire in winter, you are just there in front of the fire, and you don’t have to be smart or anything. The fire warms you.”2
I think that is a lovely metaphor—just sit with the Lord and let Him warm you like a fire in winter. You don’t have to be perfect or the greatest person who ever graced the earth or the best of anything to be with Him.
I hope you will take time this Christmas season to sit for a few quiet moments and let the Savior’s Spirit warm you and reassure you of the worthiness of your service, of your offering, of your life. Sit quietly with that little baby and come away spiritually strengthened and better prepared for all that is going to come later. Let that moment be one of rest and refreshing and reassurance and renewal.
God grant you that blessing this Christmas as you, with me, bear witness of the Savior Jesus Christ—His centrality to our lives, to all human life, and to the very purpose of existence.
We worship Him, we serve Him, and we love Him. May your life reflect that love through your offering this Christmas season and always.
The Saviour’s Gift of Peace
President Thomas S. Monson, “Treasured Gifts,” Ensign, Dec. 2006, 7.
“He who was burdened with sorrow and acquainted with grief speaks to every troubled heart and bestows the gift of peace. ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid’ [John 14:27].”
Media link: [ The Nativity]
10th Anniversary Advent Throw-Back :
[A favourite from previous Advents]
[Long, Long Ago] Author Unknown
Winds thro’ the olive trees
Softly did blow,
Round little Bethlehem
Long, long ago.
Sheep on the hillside lay
Whiter than snow;
Shepherds were watching them,
Long, long ago.
Then from the happy sky,
Angels bent low,
Singing their songs of joy,
long, long ago.
For in a manger bed,
Cradled we know,
Christ came to Bethlehem,
Long, long ago.
[My Thoughts Turn to Bethlehem] By President Spencer W. Kimball
It is Christmastime and again my thoughts turn to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and to the first Christmas.
It was a dream come true for Sister Kimball and me to be in Bethlehem one Christmas Eve some years ago. December 24th was a beautiful Sunday there and early that morning we held a sacrament meeting in Baghdad, Iraq, with a family in whose home we were guests. Afterward we flew to Damascus in Syria and then went on to Jerusalem. People from many lands were gathered there on that sacred night, waiting to be taken over the 18-kilometer winding hill road to Bethlehem.
Arriving in Jerusalem, we found the square so crowded with people that it was easy for our thoughts to go back to that first Christmas when Joseph and Mary were told “There was no room for them in the inn.”
To add to the confusion of the milling throng, Christmas carols blared out from a sound truck, and bells rang from the cupolas of the Church of the Nativity that had been built back in the fourth century. The church is built on the square over a grotto that many believe to be the true site of the manger where the Christ Child was born.
A low door and narrow steps lead into the grotto. With difficulty we made our way there. It was lighted by many candles and hung with rich drapes. With the eager crowd, we tried to meditate and relive, in contemplation, the story of that most important of all births.
Afterwards we were fortunate to find a taxi to take us about 3 km down the hillside to the Shepherd Fields where at last we found a quiet peace on that crisp, clear night. There were only four of us there on the hillside where the shepherds had been watching their flocks on that first Christmas Eve.
The moon shone with unusual brilliance, and the sky was studded with stars. In imagination, we could almost hear the “multitude of heavenly hosts praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ ”
We looked up the hill to the twinkling lights of Bethlehem and felt impressed to softly sing,
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie . . .
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
Afterwards I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the privilege of that Bethlehem Christmas and for my knowledge of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. My heart was filled with joy to know that He marked for us the plan, the way of life, whereby if we are faithful we may someday see Him and express our gratitude personally for His perfect life and His sacrifice for us.
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