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Sundays in America: Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

The Altar at Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, PA

This time last year, I was headed to Bethlehem

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that is. As part of a year I spent worshipping at a different Protestant church each Sunday to research my book, Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith, Bethlehem seemed the perfect choice for a service on the Sunday that was Christmas Eve, 2006.

Shea2Growing up Catholic, I was warned time and again never to enter a Protestant church. I would be headed straight to hell, I was told, right after the roof caved in on me. I’m thrilled to say I lived to tell the tale of my year of visits, and that Sundays in America will be published by Beacon Press in March of 2008. I’m now looking back on what was a fascinating year of travel and services from coast to coast, and out to Hawaii.

My trip to Bethlehem last Christmas Eve Day included worship at Central Moravian Church in what’s now known as Christmas City USA. The city of Bethlehem was founded on Christmas Eve, 1741, by Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf of Germany and a group of Moravians who named the hilly spot after the Biblical village in Judea. If 1741 sounds eons ago, consider that the Worldwide Moravian church was founded 449 years ago, in 1457. That’s 60 years before Martin Luther nailed his thesis to a church door and one hundred before the Anglican Church began. From the start, Moravians flocked to missionary work, often finding themselves in forgotten corners of the world. (The contingent that founded Bethlehem was interested in saving the souls of Native Americans and unchurched Colonists.) As a result, more than a quarter of its current 600,000 members worldwide live in Tanzania.

Shea1If you want to worship with the ones in Bethlehem, Christmas Eve is an excellent time to do so.  I hope you get to hear the dozen members of the bell choir who chimed in with hymns prior to the service I attended last Christmas Eve Day. In her sermon, Pastor Carol A. Reifinger talked about Christmas in Tanzania, where the preparations take all year and new shoes for Christmas worship are the big thing. In Tanzania, she said, the faithful say, “If we are going to see Jesus, we must look our best.”

Pastor Carol reminded the congregation about the expansiveness of the Christian faith. “You can’t put a fence around Christianity,” she said that morning. “What is the Christmas story but the hovering of peace above a dark and conflicted world?”

SheasundaysinamericaSuzanne Strempek Shea,winner of the 2000 New England Book Award for Fiction, is the author of five novels, Selling the Lite of Heaven , Hoopi Shoopi Donna, Lily of the Valley, Around Again , and Becoming Finola, and the memoirs Songs from a Lead-Lined Room, and Shelf Life. Her next book, Sundays in America, from which she adapted this post, will be released by Beacon Press this coming Easter. She lives in Bondsville, Massachusetts, and sells books at Edwards Books in Springfield, Massachusetts.