Christmas in Bethlehem
Christmas Eve, 1975. A group of us took the bus south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The bus stopped shy of the city. We had to walk the last mile, through an Israeli security checkpoint. We were well used to soldiers with rifles conducting routine security. That's one thing we don't see here. Be thankful.
I had been to Bethlehem, city of bread, before. Knew the Church of the Nativity. Knew that we wouldn't get anywhere near it on this night. That's OK. In Nativity Square a projector displayed the mass inside the church on a big screen. The square was mobbed.
Along a side street the vendors were all open. Bethlehem is an Arab town in the West Bank. A sleepy little town on the mountain ridge that runs from the Valley of Megiddo to the north and southward until it peters out around Eilat. Were it not for its Christian fame it would be neglected.
There was a man who owned a tourist shop there. Ed Tobasch. An Arab Christian, there was a Christian and a Muslim population in Bethlehem, as there had been for centuries. We visited him often enough that he knew us. I spoke to his father once. I wanted to buy a nativity set for my mother. They had nice olive wood items. He showed me some sets. Then Ed came out, saw what I wanted, and said, Oh, no. Don't look at those. He brought out a hand carved nativity set instead of the mass produced ones I was seeing. It was beautiful. My mother appreciated the gift and gave it back to me much later. It sits in my living room to this day.
I also remember visiting a family in Bethlehem. I don't remember the occasion. We were just there, in their house. Arabs tended to like to live in houses, even if they are close together or even joined. Jews liked apartments. I visited some in Jerusalem. I am joining several memories together now. Forty years tends to make memory a blur.
We stood in Manger Square and watched the service on the screen. It was beautiful. I remember the inside of the church. On a previous occasion when I was able to get inside. Like mist churches in the holy land, this one had a sacred place where the sacred thing happened. It was symbolic, of course, but also had a place in time and space. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has its, well, Sepulcher. A stone building over the place where Jesus was buried. With a stone alter. Where they laid him. In death. Only it wasn't. If you press the tour guides, they will tell you that the actual burial site was below this one. Under ground. In a, you know, actual tomb. Not this gaudy thing here. Real religion is messy.
So the site of the nativity was in a shrine below the alter. You walked down a set of stairs to the shrine. In this shrine was another alter. Or a holy place. I don't remember which. And by this alter, or whatever, there was a, not sure what to call it. A place. It looked almost like a fireplace. There was a blaze of gold flames erupting from the place where Jesus was born. The manger of the Nativity. This is, we are told, the stable where Joseph and Mary found shelter so she could have her baby.
The next day, Christmas day, I decided to walk to Bethlehem. I took the bus just to outside the city and continued on foot. I ventured off the road to the east and walked through the deserted outskirts. Here the terrain is uneven, drawn with wadis carved away from the ridge top and down to the Jordan Rift Valley and the Dead Sea. My way took me up and down, up and down through the wadis, occasionally coming upon herds of sheep. Like it had been for untold millennia. And will for untold more.
Bethlehem was quiet. The security checkpoints vacant. The square eerily silent. The church deserted. The shops closed. Not much to see or do. A small town deserted, much like it had been on a Christmas day long ago.
Except for the star in the sky.