Friday, December 21, 2018

Christmas in Bethlehem

Renovations are underway at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. In 2012 UNESCO declared the church a world heritage site, and the following year the renovation began. It is expected to cost about $17 million and be completed by the end of 2019. Those who have seen the ongoing work say that the old mosaics are shining with a brilliance they have not had in 600 years.

Reading about the renovations brought back memories for me. For four months in 1991 my whole family resided not far from this historic church, while I did a semester of study at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research. On a regular basis we used to walk out the back gate of the grounds, past a little Palestinian grocery, past Rachel’s Tomb and on to Manger Square.

There was no wall between Israel and the West Bank back then. No military checkpoint. No armed soldiers restricting our travel. It was just a pleasant two-mile walk into Bethlehem, the city of David, the town of the Savior’s birth. More times than I can remember I knelt in the cave under the church at the spot which marks where Jesus was born. All I have to do is close my eyes and I can smell the incense of that place.

I can still hear the bells of the church from our flat at Tantur on a hill overlooking Bethlehem. It reminded me then and now of the Christmas carol written by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “I heard the bells on Christmas Day / Their old, familiar carols play, / and wild and sweet / The words repeat / Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

We bought an olive wood nativity set on Milk Grotto Street, which we still use every year. We hang olive wood ornaments from Bethlehem on our tree, some with the names of Palestinian friends on the back. My wife still uses a beautifully embroidered eyeglass case that she bought at a Palestinian women’s church fair in Bethlehem. Every year our Christmas is filled with memories of Bethlehem.

We worshiped at the Church of Saint Catherine, adjoining the basilica. The daughter of some Palestinian friends was in a children’s Christmas program there. It was good to get to know some of the “living stones” of the Holy Land. Too many Christians visit the Holy Land only to view rocks and ruins. There are Christians living in Bethlehem and surrounding towns. These are Christians descended from the original Christians.

I wish I could see the Church of the Nativity again, with the mosaics restored to their former glory. They were beautiful even when obscured by centuries of soot and grime. I can only imagine what they look like now. But I am not planning to go. I think it would break my heart to see Bethlehem today. From friends I have heard about the Wall, which now separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem and runs as an ugly scar across the landscape where the shepherds heard the angels sing.

It pains me to read about the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, which we also visited. The violence has only gotten worse since I last visited Israel in 2000. Even our small town in New Hampshire has been effected by the violence.

A friend from our New Hampshire town moved to Israel, and we visited her and her husband in Jerusalem while we were there. This young Jewish woman, who used to babysit our children as a teenager, lost her own son to a terrorist attack in Jerusalem several years ago. The conflict in that faraway land hit home for us. The suffering endured by so many in the Holy Land again brings to mind Longfellow’s words of the Christmas carol, written during our nation’s Civil War:

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said; 
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

I pray that peace may prevail in in the Holy Land and our land this Christmas and the coming year. 

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