It seems appropriate this eve of Christmas Eve to think about spending time in the place where the events we are celebrating took place. I’ve visited Bethlehem three times, just for a day each time, and found it a place of sadness and joy, of tensions and of celebrations. A place which perhaps reflects the breadth of emotions the story of the Incarnation brings in all its fullness.
Bethlehem today is located in the West Bank, under Palestinian control. The first time I visited was during the Second Intifada and the experience of entering and exiting the town was quite confronting. Seeing the way those who lived there were roughly and invasively searched and trying to reconcile that with the deferential way we were treated as Westerners was difficult.
On our visit last year things were much calmer. But none of us could miss seeing the wall. The huge concrete construction which surrounds the town, seemingly making it appear to those outside that there is nothing and no one in there. This time one of the most confronting things I found was sections of the wall which were painted with pretty scenes of empty fields and the Sea’s edge, as if to enable those passing by to imagine that that is what the other side is really like. The reality is quite different. The difference between one side and the other is something like the difference between a ‘first world’ and a ‘third world’ country, if I can use those terms purely to evoke a comparison.
What did I love about Bethlehem?
Obviously the main ‘attraction’ is the Church of the Nativity, built to remember the place of Jesus’ birth. The church has been through a lot. But there is a simple beauty in its setting. The tiny front door, supposedly a reminder to enter with humility, certainly makes you slow down as you go in.
The grotto beneath the church with its star to locate the traditional ‘exact’ site of Jesus’ birth can provoke some cynicism; but is also a testament to the way many believers over thousands of years have remembered and been changed by the events that happened in this town.
The adjoining chapel where Jerome translated the Bible into Latin is another reminder of those who have come before, and the way we benefit from their devotion and dedication. The statue of Jerome has a skull at his feet because supposedly he carried a human skull with him to remind himself of his own mortality. An interesting choice … not one I would emulate but, hey, if it worked for him …?
Further afield you can visit the “Shepherds’ Fields,” an area where perhaps the other aspects of the story of Christmas Eve took place. Again, whether the location is exact or not, there is space to reflect and remember the message of hope and peace; the truth proclaimed here that God’s favour rests upon humanity.
Our study group shared some time in the caves here last year worshiping. I know we can worship our Saviour anywhere, and yet I do appreciate the way a sense of ‘place’ can bring another dimension to our corporate experience.
What did I learn from Bethlehem?
As well as celebrating both the biblical story and the history of the church, this is one of the places that reminds me why people make pilgrimages. Whether these are physical visits to historical or sacred sites, or more spiritual recognitions of the journey, taking time to enter in, to be still, and to return to the busy-ness of life is an important spiritual practice. I can appreciate the intention of this sign on the door of the church through which we exited.
We also spent time, and money, in some of the shops and restaurants around the town. Tourism is Bethlehem’s main source of income and it has suffered over many years. It is a privilege to be able to support those there who seek not a handout but a way to engage, serve and connect. It was also wonderful to meet with Palestinian Christians and hear something of their experience and their hopes for the future. They asked us to remember them, to pray for them, and to ask others to pray for them as they seek to find ways to build bridges of peace and reconciliation in such a difficult place.
Like many places in Israel, the history of this place, both ancient and modern, is complicated; the politics perhaps even more so. Is it an accident that it is in this difficult place we remember that we have a God who steps into the mess and muck of humanity? The fullness of God dwelt in a helpless baby. The only ones to hear the angelic choir were those sleeping outside in the dirt with the animals. The birth of this tiny child provoked an attempted genocide. The Christmas story is not neat and tidy; and the place we remember and sing songs about at this time of year isn’t either. But it is a wonderful reminder of the real power of words like hope and peace and joy. They come in the midst of darkness and conflict and despair. They come just where we need them most.