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Bishop reveals Norwich and Bethlehem link

Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, describes a new connection between Norwich and Bethlehem and how Jesus was held up in UK border control, in his Christmas message written for the EDP.

There are new crib figures in Norwich's Anglican Cathedral this year.  Made of olive wood, they were carved in Bethlehem by a local Christian family business.  Visitor numbers are down in the place of Christ’s birth since the separation wall was erected.  It’s harder for those who rely on tourists and pilgrims to make ends meet.  We needed a new large nativity set for the Cathedral, and it’s good we’ve been able to get them from Bethlehem.
 
Earlier this year I led a pilgrimage for over 50 people from the Diocese (most of them curates) to the Holy Land.  We stayed five nights in Bethlehem.  It pleased the locals.  They’ve got used to people simply coming on a day trip from Jerusalem.  The Dean of our Cathedral in Norwich, Jane Hedges, was with us.  One afternoon we were walking down a side street and saw the figures now found in the Cathedral in a half-finished state.  Jane was soon negotiating for them and a few months ago they arrived here.  But they didn’t all come at once.  They reached us in dribs and drabs.  The final figure to get through was Jesus.  For some reason he had been held in Customs. 
 
At a time when great numbers of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are travelling from the Middle East to seek sanctuary in Europe there’s something peculiarly appropriate about a figure of the infant Jesus getting held up at our borders.  He’s safely here now and at the Midnight Mass in the Cathedral tonight I will place him in the manger.
 
Recently I received a letter from someone asking me to give an instruction to all churches in the Diocese that they should not sing the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem this Christmas.  The reason?  Its second line is “how still we see thee lie”.  My correspondent (firmly on the Palestinian side of the conflict in the region) said that it was nothing less than peddling an untruth to claim that Bethlehem was still and peaceful.
 
Once I got over the touching faith that a bishop could compel such things, it struck me that the carol is about Bethlehem 2,000 years ago more than Bethlehem now.  At that time it was a small city under Roman occupation, coping with an influx of visitors for the census.  The streets would have been busy rather than still.  Yet in the depth of night even the busiest city quietens.  The tradition holds that Jesus was born when the streets were at their darkest and nearly everyone was asleep.  Jesus comes almost unnoticed into the world.  It’s just a few shepherds, and later some Eastern astrologers, who realise what’s going on.
 
O Little Town of Bethlehem is one of my favourite carols.  An American Anglican priest called Phillips Brooks wrote it for the children of his Sunday School in Philadelphia in 1868.  Three years previously he had travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback on Christmas Eve.  He stopped at the Shepherds’ fields before going on to a service in the Church of the Nativity which began at 10pm and finished at 3am.  (Midnight Mass in Norwich Cathedral will be short compared with that!)
 
The tradition lives on that Father Christmas comes under cover of darkness to leave gifts.  This carol reminds us that under cover of darkness God makes his greatest gift to humankind – Jesus Christ, his son.  “…in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light…” The message is that the darkness of the world, its trouble, conflicts and wars do not have the last word.  It’s love which will triumph even if we can scarcely believe it.
 
Our Christmas carols are not sentimental.  They don’t ignore the agonies of our world but they’re emphatic in believing that light banishes darkness and love conquers fear.  That’s why in the depth of winter we look to Bethlehem and raise our hopes.  This year there’s a new connection between Bethlehem and Norwich.  A very happy Christmas to you all.
 
Picture courtesy of www.freeimages.com/SubhadipMukherjee

 


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