Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, Israel / Palestine
October 3 – 4, 2019
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
A non-believer once argued with me, “How can you believe that Jesus is God? Man cannot be God!”
I countered, “Yes, man cannot be God. But God can be man.”
That was how I distilled the foundation of the Christian faith in 140 characters or less, a communicative length that millennials understood. The young man conceded with a seemingly enlightened smile. A couple of years later, I would walk the town where the divine was made flesh. The words I had sung in countless Christmas cantatas took on a geographic context.
But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.
The little town of Bethlehem had grown into a city. Contrary to the 19th-century Christmas carol, Jesus’ birthplace didn’t lie still, neither was it in deep and dreamless sleep even as I took a late night stroll around Manger Square. No silent star went by. Yet in its dark streets shone the lights of commerce and tourism.
Bethlehem neither remained a rural Roman town in Christ’s time nor simply became the popular pilgrimage stop at present. It was destined to be a religious and historical center. Manger Square, at first glance, separated the Church of the Nativity, a grotto therein was traditionally believed to be Jesus’ place of birth, and the Mosque of Omar. With the Bethlehem Peace Center built midway, it represented a connection between the two religions.
An Ottoman marketplace centuries before, the square had since been cleared and became a melting pot of Christian pilgrims and local Palestinians. In that crisp autumn evening of my visit, I was greeted twice, one by a man who spoke Arabic and another by a hijab-clad woman who chuckled at my singing while video-recording.
Many shops had closed for the day. That didn’t stop my sister and her squad to go on a late-night shopping expedition. It made sense for the absence of bus-loads of fellow tourists. The hunt for nativity tableaux led us to Mike Ceramic Center named after the amiable Jordanian shopkeeper who sold an array of local crafts from earthenware to fabric. “Not made in China,” he proudly proclaimed. Despite the late hour, Mike Siriani welcomed any walk-in shopper as tour agencies led their groups only to accredited stores. We were elated to spread our business away from the tour circuit.
As if the girls were not overwhelmed enough, he invited us over a few blocks to his aunt’s shop he had already closed down for good when she passed away nine months before. Mike unlocked the iron door of St. John Souvenir once again for us. The store was akin to a cave. We ducked through an archway to an inner chamber brimming with shelves full of wooden crafts from Beit Sahour (also Beit Sahur), the neighboring Christian-majority town, known for its olive wood carving industry dating back centuries.
Palestinian artisans had been blessed with the abundance of olive trees whose wood was easy to carve and varnish. Its natural variation in coloration made for diversity of design and depth. All these on top of the role of olive trees in Jesus’ life lent itself as the perfect material for religious artifacts such as cups and crosses, as well as souvenirs such as key chains and magnets.
And, of course, Bethlehem’s pièce de résistance: the nativity tableau that came in all forms and dimensions from life-size to palm-size. At St. John Souvenir, I chose the latter to fit both my budget and baggage space. Moreover, it was a depiction of Jesus’ birth in a cave. Mike affirmed the belief that, culturally and historically, the most famous Bible story took place indoors. The theory was not entirely heresy. The Holy Land, as I had seen thus far, was a pockmarked landscape. It was not uncommon for houses in biblical times to have underground barns. Mike’s shop, in fact, had a similar cavernous quality to it.
The following morning, our guide started our day where the Gospel was first proclaimed as glorious breaking news. A short bus ride took us to Beit Sahour.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Our group followed a cobblestone path dappled with morning sunlight on what used to be the alleged biblical pasture. The Chapel of the Shepherds’ Field or Chapel of the Angels had stood there since 1954. The famous Holy Land architect Antonio Barluzzi designed the building in the form of a nomadic tent.
The circular chapel contained a pictorial narrative from the annunciation to the adoration of the shepherds. Three murals in arched niches told the Christmas story based on the Gospel of Luke without the limitations of language. Natural light streamed through the partially-transparent dome as did divine glory shining through the silent night with angels heralding the birth of Jesus, the Light of the World.
Each painting was larger than life. The shepherds’ faces detailed the progression of expressions from worry to wonder, and, finally, worship. The third painting was the manger scene that somehow combined the traditional depiction of a stable with the Star of Bethlehem spotlighting the Holy Family and Mike’s culturally-aligned claustrophobic description.
The latter was physically confirmed by the remains of an ancient cave on which the chapel was built, perhaps similar to ones used by the biblical shepherds. Thus separated from other visitors in the confines of the cave, our group belted an enthusiastic Gloria in Excelsis Deo followed by Christmas greetings in the middle of autumn.
We were back at Manger Square, this time teeming with tourists vying to get into the Church of the Nativity through its sole entrance. A line had formed at the Door of Humility, so named for its low and narrow lintel that required every adult to stoop down to pass through. Our guide revealed it was primarily a deterrent to looting back in the 1500s and now taken as a sign of reverence to Christ and His humble birth.
If the fortress of a wall was any indication, the church must have needed protection, not only from petty thieves, but more so from Islamic invaders through the ages. Fortified churches were built over Christian sites in the Holy Land mainly for their preservation. That somehow sorted out my niggle about such magnificence marking the humble birth of Jesus.
The present sixth-century basilica replaced the one built by Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, in the fourth century and had since stood as the oldest complete church in Christendom. The Door of Humility opened up to a bare nave floor. Walls and altars were ornate, but there was a conspicuous absence of pews. Only folding chairs crammed a section by the main altar. The church interior took on an unfinished look.
The roof made of cedar and pine exposed its trusses, typical of Coptic churches I saw the previous week in Old Cairo. Fragments of extant Byzantine mosaics from the 12th century glistened on the walls as they reflected sunlight. They enlightened the spirit of believers as well as their otherwise dark church. Various panels depicted biblical and Coptic council scenes. However, large swathes had, unfortunately, been lost through the centuries. Mosaicists from Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Syria were credited for these enduring works. Rows of red Jerusalem limestone pillars, 44 in all, with elaborately-carved capitals were painted with frescoes of saints by the Crusaders. Some of the paintings had been darkened by the passage of time.
Helena’s church had not entirely been destroyed. A surviving section of its original mosaic floor was exhibited under a glass floor in the nave. The elaborate geometric designs looked miraculously intact. What a truly awesome experience it was to have glimpsed a piece of the fourth-century Holy Land, at least.
Hanging sanctuary lamps with red spherical wax containers similar to Christmas balls lent a yuletide touch to the church. It looked a lot like Christmas in the birthplace of the Christ. These religious ornaments unfamiliar to a Baptist from a Catholic country indicated that the basilica was largely a Greek Orthodox place of worship.
The shared belief of Christian religions in the deity of Jesus meant that His earthly birthplace would have a sectioned church with altars for each denomination. It was for the same reason that Christmas was celebrated three times in Bethlehem: December 25th of the Gregorian calendar for Roman Catholics, January 7th following the Julian calendar for Greek Orthodox, and January 19th for Armenian Christians commemorating the birth and baptism of Jesus on the same day.
As fate would have it, I missed the ground zero of the Christmas story: the cave traditionally believed to be where Jesus was born. Tourists and pilgrims crowded in front of the iconostasis, a screen wall in the Orthodox tradition, which marked the steps down to the Grotto of the Nativity. A lack of crowd control unnecessarily caused hours of waiting time to get into the cave. I had expected the turn-taking to be timed to accommodate all visitors. However, a group of Catholic pilgrims was hearing Mass, hogging the grotto.
My consolation was the fact that mere conjecture designated the spot as Jesus’ birthplace. At the end of the day, where exactly He entered the world as God incarnate was no more important than that He did. But why Bethlehem? The answer was as mundane as a census and as divine as prophecy.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
I had always mentally grappled with Jesus’ genealogy being traced through His earthly stepfather. I knew Jewish culture to be patriarchal and that out of the Davidic line the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah was fulfilled. Still, Joseph seemed incidental in the story; he never even got a word in. Did he even speak? The Gospels never gave him a name drop after Jesus’ childhood. In contrast, Mary had a more direct participation in His birth and presence in His life, death, and resurrection.
But Bethlehem, also the birthplace of King David, underscored the significant role of Joseph in the fulfillment of the prophesied yet humble birth of the Messiah.
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.
With this post, I remember my mother who passed away five days before Christmas. My siblings and I were celebrating the Advent with her at the ICU. Hours before she joined her Creator, she sang along with monumental effort to O Come All Ye Faithful. I imagine the Christmas carol as her anthem heavenward.