The season of Advent in the Christian church encompasses the weeks leading up to the birth of Christ. It is a time of preparation — preparation for the birth of the Christ child.

Around town, nativity scenes will be set up showing the manger (a trough used for feeding animals), Mother Mary, Father Joseph, three wise-men and a few sheep and a few other farm animals will be on display. Lights and decorations will adorn homes, streets and towns across America.

This is done in remembrance of the birth of the Christ child. For those who do not believe … OK.

But, for Christians, this is the beginning of the beloved season that celebrates the birth of Christ.

In June of 2001, I traveled with 54 friends from various local churches to Israel. We wanted to walk where Jesus walked. We wanted to visit places that were there 2,000 years ago.

We sailed across the Sea of Galilee, stopping halfway across for a worship service. We visited the site where Jesus stood when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

Standing there we looked south over the Sea of Galilee. Today the Beatitude Monastery sits on the hilltop. In the time of Christ, Jesus stood alone atop the hill and spoke to thousands of people. While we stood there, ministers took turns reading from His sermon on the mount. It was glorious.

During our time in Israel, we visited several important locations that are described throughout the scripture. The most remarkable to me was the site of Jesus’ birth.

We all know the story. There was no room at the inn, but the innkeeper offered Joseph and Mary the shelter of a stable in his barn. That was the image I had for most of my life.

It was later that I heard that the innkeeper did not have a barn. Instead, he sheltered his animals in a nearby cave. That is where Joseph and Mary went to spend the night and to await the birth of their firstborn child. As you would imagine, there was more safety and warmth deep within the cave, away from the entrance.

That is where Joseph led Mary. That is where the baby was born.

The very site of His birth is marked by a large silver star in the floor of the cave.

Four-hundred years later, the Church of the Nativity was built above that part of the cave where Christ was born. Steps were cut into the stone that led down into the grotto.

At the bottom of the steps is the site where it is said that Christ was born. There is large silver star imbedded into the floor at that location.

Within a few steps is a manger. This is where the newborn infant was laid. It is an awe-inspiring location.

The year 2001 was not a good time to visit the Holy Lands. There had been acts of violence across Israel. The U.S. State Department was advising everyone not to visit Israel.

We went anyway. At times we were the only visitors at some of the holy sites. Our guide told us that usually visitors had to wait for hours just to get inside the church of the nativity.

We walked right in. We saw the historical items within the church. Without anyone in front of us or behind us, we walked right down the steps into the grotto. We knelt before the location of the holy birth.

There was room for all 55 of us to sit and sing carols that celebrate the birth of the Christ child. It was an overwhelming experience. We were in no hurry.

At the end of the grotto was a large wooden door. I asked our guide where the door would lead us. He told us that it originally led to the old entrance of the cave. Now, hundreds of years later, it has all been sealed off.

The walls we leaned against were still the stone of the original cave. I could imagine Mary and Joseph using a torch as they made their way through the dark cave.

When they could go no further, Mary sat on the floor of the cave and gave birth to the Christ child.

With that, everything changes.

Enjoy the lights. Enjoy the many nativity scenes you will see throughout town.

We will have one in our front yard. Enjoy our transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Enjoy the season of Advent. It will soon be time to celebrate His birth.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist