Hello from Jerusalem,
Oh little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie,
Actually the whole adventure started with me. Early in December I was chatting with the number-two person in our office here, lamenting that we couldn’t go to Bethlehem anytime but especially now as Christmas approached. My employer, for security reasons, prohibits its employees from traveling in the West Bank except for business reasons and then only accompanied by security staff. I was surprised and pleased to see her transform my suggestion into a plan and finally, on the Saturday before Christmas, a reality.
Our journey began as the convoy pulled out of our compound. These massive, armored vehicles are impressive pieces of machinery. Though they are Suburbans, they look and feel heavy. They have larger wheels. The doors are like ponderous pieces of metal. They are equipped with obnoxious sirens. I don’t even want to know all their secrets. Oh Lord, forgive us as we travel to the place of Thy humble nativity in the vehicles of the mighty and the proud.
I felt an electric thrill as we approached the checkpoint beyond which I mustn’t travel on my own. Here we go, I thought, tensing slightly. As we entered Bethlehem, the quality and repair of the houses deteriorated noticeably and quickly. I was reminded of years ago when we lived in the Deep South and driving from the pretty white neighborhood where we lived into the Quarters, the black side of town. Instantly upon crossing that invisible line the streets narrowed, sidewalks disappeared, and the houses were small, shabby, ramshackle affairs.
Sadly, Bethlehem is lying far too still these days. The Intifada (the Palestinian “uprising”), the Israeli response to it, plus the drastically reduced numbers of tourists have made Bethlehem, which formerly depended on tourists and pilgrims, a virtual ghost town, barely surviving. I looked out the windows and saw souvenir shops and restaurants almost all empty. Few people were on the streets; the place seemed almost deserted.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Bethlehem was certainly sleepy but our guards weren’t. I was a little embarrassed to be the object of such intense scrutiny. Throughout our time there, the security personnel were in communication with each other, advising their colleagues about our location and where we were headed. As soon as we stepped (actually, they’re so high off the ground we had to sort of slide) out of the massive vehicles and they had divided us into groups of four, each with our guardians vigilantly in attendance, we walked into the church itself.
The four foot high entrance to the Church of the Holy Nativity is called the Gate of Humility because anybody taller than that must bend down to enter. When you step back and look, you can see how the original doorway was a grand, 20 or 30 foot high arched structure. Then you can make out how that entry was filled in partially to make it too small for a rider on horseback to enter. Then again, more recently, the church’s custodians made it smaller so that now, pilgrims must stoop to enter one of the most important shrines in Christendom. It is a tiny doorway into a massive building, built over the place where the infinite God was born as a tiny baby from the womb of a virgin.
We were impressed with the interior. Unlike the Holy Sepulcher this felt far more churchly, though also old and dirty and very used. Many churches were destroyed at one point or another through the millennia as armies and empires ebbed and flowed over this region. The thing that saved this church, which dates from around 530 AD, were the mosaics of the Magi. When marauding Persian armies came through, they thought that any building picturing Persian wise men had to be o.k. Floor mosaics dating to the construction of the church are visible through trap doors in a floor built over them.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light,
Actually, during the April and May 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity, very little light was shining in the church since the power lines had been cut. It was interesting to be in the nave and realize that this was where those people had been: the Palestinians wanted by the Israeli police along with the priests, monks, and nuns who tended them. I think bright lights had shined outside the church, marking the spot lest any of those wanted men escape under cover of darkness. I don’t think many were drawn to the site, besides journalists and military personnel. Likely few, if any, wise men and certainly no shepherds.
We walked from the rear to the front of the main part of the church. The altar areas (one each for the Greeks, the Armenians, and the Catholics) were ornate and pretty. On the right side of the altar we descended stairs to a grotto immediately below the altar to the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus and laid him in a manger. Like most sacred spots around here, many golden lamps, icons, and other ecclesiastical paraphernalia hung from the ceiling and walls. In some places it’s a bit too much. Here, I thought it was about right. We enjoyed lingering a few moments, even though our security people, ever diligent as they kept watch over their flocks of people not by night but by afternoon, made the devotional moment seem a bit weird and, of course, observed. So much for not letting your right hand know what your left hand is doing.
After ascending back to the altar area we were led outside then down other stairs to a catacomb sort of area filled with the bones of monks and others, gathered and placed there over many years. Another area, not so boney but more devotional, commemorates the Innocents, those poor male children under two who King Herod had ordered to be killed attempting to do-in his newborn rival, the baby King Jesus. After the joy and peace of the manger, we were sobered by this reminder of how people can do such evil and violence to other people.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
I’ll tell you about hopes and fears in Bethlehem these days. Like the hopes of local business people who have seen the tourist trade plummet to a fraction of what it was four years ago. Hotels have shut down; the few remaining ones barely survive. Olive wood shops are filled with scores and scores of locally carved nativity scenes of all sizes and prices, camels and other animals, crucifixes, Christmas ornaments, and much more. It was painful to walk by the open doors of those places, hearing the shop keepers calling out, “Hello! Friend! Stop and see my store (some call their stores museums, perhaps to attract a larger audience). I have a good price. Come. See.” I wish I’d had about a thousand spare dollars, to spend a hundred in ten different stores, though even that would have barely helped.
The last site we saw in Bethlehem was also about hope. It is called the Milk Grotto. According to an old tradition, while the Holy Family was traveling to Egypt, fleeing Herod’s wrath, Mary stopped at this place and nursed baby Jesus. While nursing, a drop of her milk fell on the ground, causing the stones to become white. Over the years, many people believe that powder from those stones can help childless women give birth. They have come to the Milk Grotto to get some of the white rock, grind it into a powder, and consume it. The walls of the place were covered with pictures of happy couples with babies, presumably people who benefited from the white stone. The place was filled with the hopes of women who wanted to give birth and gratitude for those who already had. Hope, a powerful force, can certainly cause great things.
What a fine day it had been! We felt very lucky to have been able to travel to Bethlehem only one week before Christmas. I was grateful to those who gave the approval and made all the arrangements. I hope that the conflict here will be resolved. One reason I hope this (among many) is so Bethlehem can return to what it was four and more years ago: a popular, well-visited pilgrimage site to which people can freely and safely travel.