Christmas is a conflicting time for me. I definitely enjoy giving and getting gifts, yet I yearn to shake off the superficial and celebrate the holiday's true meaning to my faith. At this time, I remember one of the most wonderful experiences of my young life: a trip to Israel and visit to the Church of the Nativity
The visit to Israel changed my life and solidified my faith. My experience at the Church of the Nativity provided me with a powerful picture I call upon each Christmas Eve as candlelight services ring with hymns.
I wrote about this experience in my weekly column for the local paper, The Baldwin City Signal
. I penned the following story during my junior year of college.
Merry Christmas.The true meaning of Christmas
By Andy Woolard, Signal Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2000
I am 18, a senior in high school, and ready to step onto the tarmac in Tel Aviv Israel. I am armed with only film and a Bible and begin to think the jokes about a flak jacket weren't jokes at all. Soon I will walk where Jesus walked. I am over packed and thirsty and homesick and in dire need of a cheeseburger. I will soon get used to kosher McDonald's.
My waist itches because of the money belt that has ridden low enough to cause embarrassment. Inside it are my valuables, my passport and money. Gift money. Authentic Holy Land crafts for the whole family, come Christmas.
For the next 10 days I walk through holy sights, sights of great suffering and great discovery. My group files in and out of a tour bus driven by a plump Palestinian man and guided by an Arab named Arram. Outside the bus merchants wait for the next line of tourists. Jagged rows of tanned peasants follow us to each destination hawking holy water at the Jordan River and crucifixes at the Garden of Gesthemane. We shove our Bibles into our armpits and dig into our money belts, then cross a few names off of our gift list.
We rush through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Annunciation and take pictures of the other tomb and the place where Gabriel told Mary that she'd soon be a mother. Then we walk back to the bus, pause for a second look at the olive wood nativity scene that's in such demand back home. Once someone buys it, we all do. We don't want to be the only person without an olive wood nativity scene.
I save a roll of film for the Church of the Nativity, where Mary and Joseph stopped for the night, where the Wise Men came, where Jesus was born. Arram told us that a real picture of the church would go well with the hand carved manger we just purchased. We snap a few exterior shots, then bend down low to enter through a four-foot high door; the church's main entrance. Once inside we turn around and take a picture of our friends bending over and we laugh at them, cameras swinging like pendulums from their necks. We dance through the church, intoxicated with the thought that we'd know where Jesus was really born, everyone else would just sing "Away in a Manger."
At the front of the church, steep stone steps lead to an underground room. Four or five at a time, single file, no pictures. This is a place of worship; this is the manger. I turn my camera off, suddenly feeling the importance of the place that I am in and I descend the stairs. In the room, a gold star, representing the star that guided the wise men to Jesus is inlayed on the floor. It marks the front of a dark hole in the wall. "There it is."
My camera burns in my hand and I think, with the flash off, what an amazing gift the picture would make. Framed in olive wood and hung next to the Christmas tree. "Our son went to Israel, he saw the real manger. He wasn't supposed to take a picture but, you know." Then an old woman comes down the stairs. She crawls — back end first — like a child. The exertion makes her body shake and her weathered face scrunch. I watch as she reaches the last stair and crawls, bent with desire, until her face is directly above the gold star. She stays there for a while; long enough for me to realize the true meaning of Christmas.