To truly experience the wonders of Christmas past, The Walk to Bethlehem is definitely a step in the right direction.
Strolling along the canvas-covered pathway amid the Palestinian-garbed artisans and vendors, musicians and Roman guards, for three days visitors to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church will once again have an opportunity to connect with those from ancient times.
After a one-year hiatus, Pastor Colin Cross and his team are bringing back the very popular seasonal celebration to the grounds of the century-old, downtown parish.
A living nativity scene and the opportunity to sample some of the culinary delights of the era also await pilgrims who make the trek.
“Christmas time is, and I don’t want to be sentimental about this and I hate to use the word, but special,” said Cross, who organized the first Walk in 2004. “But it’s kind of a mysterious time of year when people maybe want to think about the larger question.
“We’re (Presbyterians) not particularly noted for being aggressive about the Christian gospel but we kind of want to open doors to people’s imaginations and that is what I think makes it so effective. The story is told simply, without any pressure one way or another.”
Not having the event, which this year takes place Nov. 30 through Dec. 2, in 2011 was a big disappointment to many people, according to the pastor, but it had proven to be a lot of work for a small number of people.
The setup takes several weeks and once the brief run is over, there is the almost as time consuming dismantling process.
“We always intended to bring it back and I have lots of energy and all that but I also have a whole lot of other work to do being your basic parish minister,” said Cross. “However, back in January somebody came forward with some money to hire this person (to produce the program) and so we did and it’s back on.”
Instead of the Walk last Christmas, St. Andrew’s hosted an event featuring a series of Victorian plays and music which were well attended but did not have the same draw.
Cross believes much of the success of this event can be traced back to its simplicity and allowing people to enjoy themselves without pressure, financial or religious.
He recalled two years ago sitting beside the cradle in the Nativity scene at the top of the church’s outside steps as the youngsters did their re-enactment.
“The children and adults who were walking by would stare up at us and I said: ‘Just walk up here and look in the manager, there is the baby,’ and I told them the story,” said the pastor. “They came up and were just totally transfixed, it was really something to see, the profound mystery and beauty, it is difficult to describe.
“It was such a gracious experience for me to see the children who were touched, it’s a wonderful thing.”
According to the pastor, while other local church groups now participate in the production, not everyone in town agrees with St. Andrew’s primary goal.
“There are some of our Christian friends who are critical of it because we’re not sharing the gospel, to walk forward for spiritual conversation, the kind of thing you would do at a Billy Graham crusade,” he said. “We specifically decided not to do that in a pushy sort of way. While it’s not that we’re unwilling to have spiritual conversations with people, that wasn’t our goal to push anyone in that direction.”
While Cross feels everyone is entitled to their convictions, he doesn’t believe such conversions are truly meaningful to the individual — or lasting.
“My opinion, you can’t engineer something in someone’s life,” said Cross.
He added in many cases, especially for older visitors, this time of year can also be a sad occasion, and they simply want to ease their loneliness and not necessarily find salvation.
“It can be difficult for these people and this (walk) ends up being kind of a warm experience,” said Cross.
The enjoyment of the three days also spills over into the ranks of the volunteers who play the various characters.
The pastor recalled the enjoyment the two men got from their role of Luke (who wrote a gospel and the Book of Acts) in a previous event.
“It is thought he (Luke) was a physician, and so in your imagination you can talk to Dr. Luke and get a leach — we have all these licorice leaches,” he said. “So these two guys were really into it, having fun freaking out the kids with all the ancient remedies.”
Once finished their sojourn through the past, guests can relax in a turn-of-the-millennium cafe for some refreshment and there will also be an opportunity for a souvenir photograph, Palestinian dress provided.
As well, in the church sanctuary there will be the usual theatrical performance.
This year it will be a preview of the St. Andrew’s stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life, which can be seen in its entirety the following two weekends.
And if previous presentations of the Walk to Bethlehem are any indication, this year’s event will likely be another success story for organizers.
There is no charge.