13 December 2022

Commissioner Gillian Cotterill: How far is it to Bethlehem?

Commissioner Gillian Cotterill

Photo shows an overview of modern-day Bethlehem at sunset or sunrise

A message from Commissioner Gill Cotterill from the War Cry Christmas special.

I wonder, are you planning on taking a journey this Christmas? Whether you are staying at home or joining the great seasonal getaway to celebrate with family and friends – perhaps for the first time since the restrictions of the pandemic – there is an invitation for us all to embark on a journey at this time of year.

‘How Far is it to Bethlehem?’ is a poem written by Frances Chesterton, wife of the author of the Father Brown detective books, GK Chesterton. She wrote it for her Christmas cards in 1917, and it became a carol. I must confess that, over the years, my imagination has often been captured by its first line, which asks that interesting question: How far is it to Bethlehem?

In my experience, long journeys, especially with children in tow, are always accompanied by the inevitable questions of ‘Are we there yet?’ and ‘How much longer is it going to take?’

I suspect that Mary may have asked the same question of Joseph more than once as they made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem to comply with the census. It was a trip of approximately 90 miles, and in normal circumstances would have taken a good four days. However, for a pregnant woman it would have taken far longer. Most likely it would have been on foot too, for there is no mention of a donkey in the Bible!

A photo of Commissioner Gillian Cotterill wearing Salvation Army uniform

Eventually, tired and exhausted, they arrive at their destination just in time for the Christ-child to enter the world. How poignant that Jesus, God with us, the one who gives and sustains life in all its fullness and who later was to state ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6:35), was born in Bethlehem – a town whose name in Hebrew means ‘house of bread’!

Then the shepherds enter this dramatic story of journeys. They were living out in the fields, watching their flocks at night, when seemingly from nowhere an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around. The shepherds could be forgiven for being terrified – who wouldn’t be? But, having calmed them down, the angel gives them some amazing news that not only was about to change their lives for ever but also would have the power to transform my life and yours and all humankind for eternity: ‘A saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’ (Luke 2:11).

Having been told where to find the Christ-child, they didn’t hang about, but hurriedly went on their way and found Mary and Joseph with their newly born son lying in a manger. Such was the impact of their trek to Bethlehem that they couldn’t hold back on sharing this good news with everyone. They were in awe and bursting with joy, praising God with every ounce of their being for what had been revealed to them.

Luke 2:15

Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.

Read the passage

How far is it to Bethlehem? I discover the answer to the question is found, along with so much more, in this simply worded poem that has far more spiritual depths than I had ever noticed before. For it takes us on a pilgrimage not measured in miles or hours travelled, or traffic jams or detours endured, but one that can only be experienced in the depths of our hearts when we intentionally and continuously seek Jesus.

So, Bethlehem is not really very far at all, is it? Yet at times we are hesitant about coming into a closer relationship with Jesus. Feelings of our own unworthiness, or of having few gifts to offer, or that our lives are made up only of ‘little smiles and little tears’ all have the potential to block our pathway and we find ourselves at a distance from Christ.

Wait a moment though! We may miss something crucial here. What if we lift the latch and boldly enter into the loving, welcoming presence of Christ? What if, stepping inside, we humbly come in faith just as the shepherds did long ago and open ourselves afresh to the babe of Bethlehem, the bread of life? The carol ends by saying that we can find rest in discovering Jesus as our heart’s desire.

May you find your way to Bethlehem and be deeply blessed this Christmas!

Written by

A photo of Commissioner Gillian Cotterill

Commissioner Gillian Cotterill

Territorial Leader for Leader Development

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