Long ago when the great temples to the gods in Rome and Athens were busy, and sacrifices were still being offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, caravans of up to a thousand camels regularly set out from Yemen (Sheba of the Old Testament) to satisfy their need for frankincense. Yemen still exports frankincense but not in those quantities.
The long-suffering prophet Jeremiah once rebuked his listeners for bringing “frankincense of Sheba” to God, while rejecting his teaching. The revered and much-loved late Bishop Kenneth Cragg used this outburst of Jeremiah’s as the cue for a Christmas poem. In it he suggests the frankincense of the manger was from Yemen – perhaps its bearer too.
In Bethlehem where wisdom dwelt
To grace the earth,
Some strange attraction Sheba felt
At Jesus’ birth
The bush that burns on altars shyly knelt.
Two days before our first Christmas in Aden an older, local member of staff sought me out to ask anxiously, “Where is Bethlehem?” I looked confused and she hastened to explain that previous chaplains had always put up a little stable with animals and Mary and Jesus in the Community Centre. For her, that was ‘Bethlehem’. I smiled and led her into the church where the previous afternoon with the help of two of the guards I had built from old packing cases not a stable, but a shack, like those Aden’s refugees live in. She gasped with surprise and exclaimed, “It is a real Bethlehem!” She walked all around it and peered inquisitively inside. Then she said wistfully, “When prophet Jesus comes again, I think it will be to somewhere like this.”
One of the highlights of our recent return visit to Aden was the time we were able to spend with the now much-depleted but very joyfully united and wonderfully faithful congregation of Christ Church. We even managed a mini retreat together for two days, filling the long-empty guest rooms with our presence and the church with our laughter and our praise. After our return, Yasmin, an international aid worker from Colombia and a new member of Christ Church wrote to us: ‘We meet at church with full confidence that God is wherever two or three gather in His name (which is sometimes literal in our case) and we know His presence is enough for us – but we miss you anyway.’
One behalf of Yasmin, Rex, Amanat, Nazir and Firdos, Adna, Adam and Solomon, Gashu, Sameera and Nathnael, others in Yemen who would at the manger, ‘shyly kneel’, and on behalf of all the staff of our clinics, we wish you a wonderful Christmas, and thank you most heartily for your interest, love and support.
With much love
Peter and Nancy