Day 5: Morning in Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM – My day will begin with Bethlehem. To get there from Jerusalem, you have to go into Palestinian territory.  But first, you pass the suburbs of Jerusalem. The suburbs are well, American. It feels like a very clean, pristine, tree-minimized Westchester County suburb as you go through on a tour bus. It looks western, more a colony of the U.S. than history’s most influential city.

I was prepared for Bethlehem to disappoint, as the myth is so great. The first thing you pass is the gate in the wall between Israel and the territories. We are told, not scarily so, not to take pictures as we pass through the gate to the Palestinian territory. What is odd about it is how close it is to Jerusalem. While not unkempt, it does not have the feel of visual sophistication found in Jerusalem’s Israeli suburbs.

The Gospels talk about the old Bethlehem. It comes alive in the glorious King James Book of Matthew:

 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

I wanted to always see that star, that perfect Bethlehem. We all do. It is imprinted on our brains, from every good moment of childhood.

Our guide Bishara Koury knows Arabic, English and Hebrew, and is the sort to get along with everyone. He gets off the bus, encouraging us to move quickly, as guards never like a vehicle to stay too long at an entrance, for obvious reasons. We go right up to the entrance, guarded and run by Palestinians, who keep the peace between Syriac, Greek, Armenian and Catholic factions. A guide takes us straight to the Grotto of the Nativity, and we push a few aside to get in. Not in a bad way, as the guard does the job pleasantly. I see the silver star marker where Jesus was born, and kneel down and put my hand inside the star, as so many others do. I remember the star from Holy Land USA in Orlando, as there is a fake Grotto right of Interstate 4 near Universal Studios and Sea World.

I fully expected something mystical to happen there. I am not sure what could have happened, but whatever I hoped, did not. Instead, it was simply historic and incarnate. The Church of the Nativity, really, is more of a history of Christianity than a mystical site. The church was built around the time of the Council of Nicea, so already we can see the built manifestation of the church, only a few hundred years after Christ. It is obvious that Christ still had a major effect that short time after His era.

The Rev. Andrew Mayes, who is our course director, takes us down to the tomb of St. Gerome, who died in 420. St. Gerome is no longer there, but the site is revered because of Gerome’s large body of work and a figure of writing in church history almost as well known as Augustine of Hippo.

So much has happened there, from Crusaders to the first crowning of the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin I of France, in 1100, as part of the second crusade. Baldwin was “the right arm of his people, the terror and adversary of his enemies.”

I leave, not so much charmed by the place, but confirmed by the place. The story in Bethlehem is not Jesus. Well it is; of course Jesus is the reason for Bethlehem. But what makes it compelling, after that, is the Christ presence after his resurrection. It is an other feeling, one of connection to the long, unbroken chain of Christians who have venerated the place, and held it as special. At one moment, as the noises of all the tourists milling about filled my head, I had to think of those early Christians coming to an alien, dangerous land, without the benefit of a Delta 747 and a Mercedes tour bus. For a second, I was part of the narrative of those who built Christianity. Or better yet, they, as Christians, were at one with me.

Below, some photos:

Streetscape in Bethlehem
Actually, this looks like what you’d expect in Bethlehem.
Another streetscape.
Closed restaurant, odd name, ugly sign.
A street sign, in excellent taste.
View across manger square. Many Christmas nights on TV have come from here.
The accommodation of pilgrims is an important part of the church in the Holy Land; its a business and a mission.
Inside the Church of the Nativity, the Christmas balls and hanging lamps give it a feeling of being “other” from our traditional Christmas, yet connected to it.
Mosaics, as i recall, date from the time of Constantine.
Not all the sisters at the church follow the rules on iPhones.
The Church of St. Catherine, which is above or near the tomb of St. Gerome, who translated the Bible into Latin and is entombed below.
Jay Crouse and The Rev. Dr. Andrew Mayes down in the tomb of St. Gerome.
Panis Vitae is Latin for Bread of Life.
Thankfully the ages have been preserved at the Church of the Nativity; each generation as built on the next.
I love the Jerusalem Cross here in a roof sign, with bougainvillea about.
Rather glad I missed this. Didactic social justice doesn’t seem necessary when you experience the real church.
View of the wall separating the territory.
Pro-Palestinian graffiti in Bethlehem.
At the tomb of St. Gerome.
Palestinian guards at the Church. They are very friendly, and have a true sense of mission in protecting the place.
Another view of the wall between Palestinian territory and Israel.
Bishara greeting one of the local Palestinians in charge of the place.

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