We visited Israel this year, and our guide, an Israeli Jew, was unable to take us across the Palestinian border to Bethlehem. “No Jews allowed,” he said, and so he hooked us up with a Christian Palestinian guide on the other side. We sat at the Israeli border in our guide’s white van, throwing apprehensive looks at the bullet-pocked wall with barbed wire strung across the top. “I’ve never lost a tourist. Yet.” He said it with a straight face, and I’m certain I turned to my husband with a look of undisguised terror.
“It’s another world on the other side,” he continued, “but you’ll be fine.”
We gathered our belongings, and our children like ducks around us, and we made the slow, single file march through the metal corridors and barriers until we set foot in Palestine. Our new guide waited in a car, parked near the exit gate, with complete disregard for the curb and other vehicles. When we emerged, the only tourists in a sea of Palestinians, he gathered up my chicks, while I gathered up my conspicuous blonde hair, and we drove, hot and cramped, to Bethlehem.
He took us to arid, scrubby fields, where shepherds used to gather their flocks at night. And while I took photos and attempted to have a spiritual moment, the guide pointed to greener pastures in the distance. “My grandmother has a farm there, it is our family’s for generations, and now we cannot go. It is over the border. We are kept out.” I muttered something sympathetic, while trying to envision a chorus of angels announcing the birth of Christ. This guy was messing with my moment.
A few feet away, my children scrambled on rocks, and a group of Christians sat beneath the shade of a white tent singing heavily accented hymns. In the distance, the fields stood dry and still. One of the kids slipped on a rock, and the guide requested that they kindly STOP. IT. NOW. I snapped fuzzy photos of hills and a no man’s land of forgotten farms.
I walked beneath the words “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” at the entrance to the garden and fields, and tried to feel the glory. I didn’t feel it in the expected way, a shiver of emotion running down my spine, or a welling of tears. I felt the glory of God in the most ordinary way, the same way I feel it every day. It is a simple, constant knowing. The glory of God still comes to those of us who feel un-exceptional in every way. We shepherds of dishes and daily life. It comes to those who scramble through life and frequently slip up. It comes to the outsider, the one with the hair and the skin that doesn’t look like all of the others. Glory falls on fallow ground and hymn singers and on those who find themselves unable to return home. The glory of Christ’s birth is for all of us, everyday, whether we feel the moment or not.
It’s another world on this side of the manger and the cross. It’s a world where everything is turned upside down, where God confines himself to human skin, and we clothe ourselves in the Holy Spirit. We are strangers in this land, always looking across the time-continuum to the place our soul knows as the family home. Someday we will go there, and we will be strangers no more. Gloria in Excelsis Deo.