Byline: REV BILL WALLACE
MANGER Square in Bethlehem will be a tense place tonight.
Despite its sacred history, troop reinforcements will be garrisoned at the police headquarters - literally a stone's throw from the Church of the Nativity.
The church shows signs of all the tension and strife which has swept over the Middle East for centuries.
Its old doorways, dating back to the days of Emperor Justinian (AD 483-562), are walled up and the present aperture made to ensure that no desecration should come from crude invaders riding in on horseback. You have to bow low to enter.
Bethlehem has a rich history. Here Jacob buried his beloved Rachel. On the hills nearby, David looked after his father's sheep, and it is the scene of of the romance of Ruth and Boaz.
Deep within the Church of the Nativity is a cave which was possibly the birthplace of Jesus. It is now hung and cluttered with objects of people's devotion but a visit is well worth the effort, particularly if you can take time to sing Away in a Manger in the magnificent accoustics.
A strange peace seems to come upon the place but, outside, it is a different world.
Christmas has always been a time of contrasts. Angels singing about the birth of a child to a peasant couple in strange circumstances; no room for the baby in Bethlehem's Inn, only a cattle shed.
No midwife either. Mary had to dress her newborn babe. There were no great crowds to welcome this child and, very soon, his parents would be taking the long trek to Egypt to flee the wrath of the evil Herod.
Christmas in our land brings many contrasts too. Families are spending an average of [pounds sterling]1,000 each to celebrate a season which was supposed to mark the rejection of wealth and the choice of the most humble lifestyle.
See Within a Manger Lies, He Who Built the Starry Skies.
Tonight and tomorrow church services will be as crowded as they ever are at this time of year. The rest of the year is a different story.
Although the football authorities would be over the moon if they could get as many through the gates on Saturdays as attend church on Sunday mornings, it should not blind us to the reality of the continuing decline in formal religious devotion.
Aberdeen can now claim the dubious distinction of having the lowest rate of church-going for any Scottish city, at 8 per cent of the population.
Is it a coincidence that what is generally regarded as one of Scotland's richest cities, thanks to the oil boom, can boast the emptiest pews?
Admittedly, the rate is even lower in many country areas.
But of even greater concern is the more general rejection of the message of the Gospel.
Many people enjoy the religious side of Christmas just because it is about a child - small, vulnerable and entirely unchallenging. The beautiful music, the traditional carols, the joy of giving and receiving, the fascinating birth narratives and the beautiful serenity of Mary and Joseph give religion at this time of year a special charm and joy.
Yet for the rest of the year our society has more in common with the philosophy of Herod than Jesus.
Herod, of course, was afraid the infant Jesus might grow up and challenge him, so he tried to ensure this was impossible by slaughtering all boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.
It was an insanely barbaric act which proved to be entirely futile.
History condemns Herod.
But as future generations look back at end of this century, will historians not condemn us for having clung so sentimentally to the idea of baby Jesus while avoiding the challenge of the teachings of the man Jesus?
Look around. Everywhere we can see the hard evidence of the results of setting aside Christian principles as the basis of our society.
And most …