An estimated 15,000 people traveled back in time more than 2,000 years last week, as Ponte Vedra Presbyterian Church hosted its 25th annual “A Bethlehem Visit.”
Visitors from across the First Coast and as far away as Georgia traveled to Ponte Vedra Beach for the annual extravaganza, which transforms the church’s property on Palm Valley Road into an impressive life-sized model of ancient Bethlehem. So large were the crowds, in fact, that dozens of full-size school buses shuttled the thousands of visitors from the TPC Sawgrass parking lot down the road to the church, the flow of visitors moving with Disney-like efficiency thanks to the assistance of some 200 volunteers.
“Our pastor likes to say we’ll see anywhere from 10,000 people to 2 million,” quipped volunteer Sharon Hawes, who has been participating in the Bethlehem event for 18 years.
Hawes welcomed guests outside the church sanctuary, where visitors first enjoyed a brief program featuring musical performances and a welcome from Senior Pastor Richard Cooper.
“It’s just a wonderful city,” Cooper said of the recreated Holy Land guests were about to visit. “We tried to replicate what we thought Bethlehem would have been like 2,000 years ago.”
Cooper then shared the gospel message with visitors before a live performance of “O Holy Night.” As the doors to the sanctuary opened, parents accompanied by eager children ventured out into the darkness.
“I’m going to see baby Jesus!” a child exclaimed, clutching his father’s hand tightly.
Ancient BethlehemAs the modern-day pilgrims progressed down the church path, they were greeted by two Roman centurions on horseback, who sternly ordered the crowds to keep moving. Soon, visitors approached the towering gates of Bethlehem – also guarded by centurions – and passed into the ancient city. Visitors mingled with residents costumed as merchants, who called out to passersby to sample their wares and purchase goods. Children gravitated to the live chickens, lambs, goats and other animals on display throughout the city, which also featured some of the less positive aspects of ancient life, including lepers begging at the side of the road and a live slave auction.
But the highlight was the opportunity to visit the stable where Mary and Joseph cradled the infant Jesus. After passing out of the city, guests enjoyed cookies and hot chocolate around a roaring bonfire before boarding buses back to the 20th century.
Church volunteers said the Bethlehem experience is an annual event that church members look forward to each year. They also echoed the comments of Pastor Cooper, who during his welcome remarks expressed his thankfulness that “after 25 years, God continues to bring people here” to hear the gospel and experience the birth of Christ.