I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my son in Bethlehem. It was both wonderful and disruptive. And it was the least festive Christmas I’ve ever had, at least measured by my childhood memories of baubles and carols and angels and all the family gathered to feast. My son and I ate Christmas dinner alone in a cold cafeteria. We had lamb meatballs in tomato broth, and no dessert. We exchanged not a single gift, other than the best ones: words of blessing and thanksgiving.
Bethlehem is, of course, no longer a little town lying still in deep and dreamless sleep. It is a sprawling and dangerous Palestinian city, surrounded by prison-like concrete walls, teeming with military police, simmering with discontent. We got caught in a small riot on Christmas Day – an angry mob, finally dispersed by canisters of tear gas, hurling rocks in sling shots, burning garbage and tires, strewing debris across roadways, chanting angry slogans.
It was not a scene of peace on earth, good will toward men. This was my first visit to Israel and Palestine. Many people told me, when they heard of my plans, that the trip would transform me: that walking where Jesus walked, reading stories in the places where the actual events happened, touching the water from which Peter pulled nets and across which Jesus strode – all this and more would breathe fresh life into my faith.
Yes and no.
No in the sense that the “places Jesus walked” are mostly buried beneath layers of subsequent development and pious tradition. The actual sites are largely lost to us. But yes in the sense that the landscape remains virtually unchanged since the first century, or even a thousand years earlier, from the time of David. To stand on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is to see the world much as Jesus and his disciples saw it. To sit in the heights of En Gedi and look out across the canyon walls toward the shining expanse of the Dead Sea is to behold what David, running from mad Saul with his gang of malcontents, beheld.
That’s why Capernaum had such an impact on me. Except for a church and a monastery, and a parking lot to accommodate fleets of monstrous tour buses, Capernaum remains the town where Jesus lived during the days of his ministry in Galilee. Here lie the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus preached, the crumbling walls of the houses in which he ate and spoke and healed, and in one of which he would have slept.
The town’s ordinariness overwhelmed me. Its mundane quality riveted me. Capernaum was a hick town. It played no pivotal historical role. It was never an economic driver, a strategic military location, a cultural innovator, a political flashpoint. It was a little fishing village where a small population, among them Peter, eked out an existence.
And it’s where Jesus lived. Not in Athens, or Alexandria, or Jerusalem. Not in some thriving epicenter, some crossroads of power and wealth and culture. No, he set up shop in a hick town on the margins of everything.
That invigorates my faith. That it was this place (plus a few other hick towns like Bethlehem and Nazareth) that the God of heaven and earth chose to send his one and only son to live among us – this thrills me. It is God’s strange and wondrous habit to choose unlikely people and insignificant places to do the most spectacular and transformative things.
Today, Christianity claims 2.4 billion followers – a third of the world’s population – spread throughout the entire globe. The faith Christ established has launched some of the world’s greatest institutions – universities, hospitals, science, abolition, universal suffrage, civil rights – and inspired some of culture’s greatest artifacts, from cathedrals to symphonies to masterpieces of art.
And it all began in a place which, except for one remarkable inhabitant, no one would otherwise remember.
God doesn’t need the props and trappings and infrastructure of worldly accomplishment to remake the earth. It turns out, any old hick town will do. From nowhere, he can change everything.
That does breathe fresh life into my faith.