an edited version of this article I wrote was first published in Testimony Magazine
Skirmishes with police, multiple suicide bombings, now a 25 foot wall… the place of Jesus’ birth
here’s what I saw when I visited and a few things for all of us to consider…
A Tense Welcome
Our tour bus lumbered up to the first Bethlehem check point on Epiphany, January 6th. A group of heavily armed soldiers dragged on their cigarettes and joked with one another as we sat anxiously looking out our tinted windows. It seemed like an unreasonably long wait until an Israeli soldier entered the bus and asked the driver some questions. He examined official-looking papers and slowly scanned each of our faces.
I felt uneasy. This had never happened to me on any of my trips to from Quebec to Vermont as a kid. A heavy tension seemed to hang over the city, brought on by violent skirmishes between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters. This was not the “little town of Bethlehem” described by Philip Brooks in 1868. After seeing it at night from a distant hill he wrote:
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Jarring Call to Prayer
We had quite a different view. Our bus inched its way through the city of about 60,000 Israeli and Palestinian residents. Soldiers waved us through other check points into the streets, past clusters of military personnel who glanced up from most major intersections. The driver parked the bus in a designated area and Joseph, our tour guide, led us through the crowds to the Church of the Nativity.
West Bank security forces lined the edges of Manger Square scanning the hundreds of people gathered. A menorah and a star lit up in white Christmas lights hung on the side of the church. Suddenly, a jarring Arabic call to prayer sounded loudly through many metallic speakers all around us. It hit me that three of the world’s great religions were awkwardly crowded into this small space.
What Mary Saw
In that moment I pictured Joseph and Mary arriving at this same place for a mandatory Roman Census. The tense military presence would have been obvious as they elbowed their way through the strange crowds to register. Certainly they had no desire for conflict but it could happen suddenly with the strained political and religious tensions of the day.
As the loud prayers continued, we waited in a long line of visitors entering the ancient church one at a time stooped low at the stone doorway called the “Door of Humility.” I learned that it wasn’t designed to make pilgrims bow but to keep soldiers on horseback out. The church had survived centuries of war. Had Bethlehem ever been the peaceful place described in the beautiful Christmas carol?
Away in a Cave
We shuffled our way in the line toward the stairs to the Grotto; the cave where Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus. I was surprised to see off to the side, areas that were closed for repairs from recent gunfire inside the church. Other mysterious areas were for “authorized personnel only.”
A Stately Solemn Procession
As we moved ahead, I was cut off from my tour group by a procession cutting across to one of the restricted areas. An ornately robed church official unlocked a large steel fence into a dark ancient corridor. The Patriarch of Constantinople, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, was in the middle of the procession. He was dressed in black robes with a hood and covered in chains with heavy gold links holding three large gold crosses.
He slowly swung a gold censure that filled the area with bitter incense. Looking straight ahead, he walked with a thick ornate golden staff. The bishops moved about him in deep reverence for the Epiphany celebration. The processions moved down a golden passageway and the black iron gate was locked behind them. The rest of the tour group moved on as I stood and wondered about the meaning of the procession for the cleric involved in that solemn assembly.
A little obscure family
What a stark contrast this group was to the little family who we were there to honor. There was no special entourage for Joseph and Mary who were turned away from the inn and had to make their way unceremoniously to a cave carved out of the hillside. There were no attendants fawning over them. In fact, the biblical story doesn’t even mention family members present for the birth. There were no adornments to the roughly hewn enclosure or to the rough sandstone feeding trough where the young mother put her new born.
I caught up with my group as they reached the narrow stairs down to the grotto of the nativity; a place of worship since the 2nd Century. A 14 pointed silver star was embedded in the marble floor to mark the spot where it is presumed that Mary placed Jesus into the manger. Pilgrims in front of me knelt at the star and put their hand inside to touch the center.
When it was my turn, I knelt on the marble floor, placed my hand in the silver star. The words of Oh Little Town of Bethlehem were stuck in my head…
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in.
Amid the soldiers, the crowds, political and religious tensions, Bethlehem wasn’t the serene setting described in the Christmas carol but for me it continues to be a place of hope. The Son of God entered this difficult place to be the light in such deep darkness.
As the song writer says so beautifully:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
My hope is that in this Christmas season his light will shine brighter than ever…