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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Christmas at Bethlehem

A modern Catholic couple journeys to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve in the steps of Mary and Joseph.

Our decision to walk to Bethlehem at night on Christmas eve, our first together in the Holy Land, proved a most rewarding experience. Such a personal pilgrimage is as difficult to describe exactly as it would be to let the journey go unrecorded.

The stars were bright, high in the clear Jerusalem sky, as we found our way from Mount Zion down the steps leaving the Old City, and across the valley of Gehenna. A main road now carries modern traffic along that ancient path, but apart from a few hurrying cars all was quiet that night before Christmas.

The dull, monotonous modern flats for Israeli immigrants line one side of the road. The old style Oriental dwellings of the former Arab population on the other side mark a line of history, conflict, and confrontation at odds with the Christmas spirit.

A few Benedictine monks of Mount Zion’s Dormition Abbey passed us by as we climbed the hill overlooking the Old City. They, too, are following the age-old custom of Jerusalem’s faithful who walk the route of Mary and Joseph this sacred night.

Our journey was different. We wished to walk into the sunrise, more like the shepherds, and arrive at Bethlehem at dawn. We were a little fearful of the three-hour walk for Mary, my wife, was carrying our own first child.

Dawn seemed to be coming quickly to snuff out the gleaming stars. Near the end of Jerusalem’s modern city we came to the Greek monastery of Mar Elias just as the sun rose. In a ploughed field before the monastery we rested to watch the dew-covered furrows glisten in the new morning sun. Only later, when we read the guide book, did we discover the tradition that Mary and Joseph, too, had rested there on the way to Bethlehem.

As we turned the hill, there in front of us lay the long valley of olive trees. Farther away shining in the sunrise the churches, towers, minarets, and houses of Bethlehem huddled on a ridge to the south. We could pick out the bell towers of the Church of the Nativity built over the cave where Jesus was born, and saw the winding road up the hill to David’s royal city.

The warming sun and the nearness of Bethlehem gave new meaning to the words of the shepherds, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.” (Lk 2:15).

Just outside Bethlehem is Rachel’s tomb, where, as one tradition has it, the shepherds kept watch over their flocks, and first heard the angels’ message. There, too, an older tradition tells that the patriarch Jacob, the ancestor of Joseph, pastured his flock.

Rather incongruously at the next corner stands a three-story building with a sign, “Bethlehem Cigarette Factory.” Then, a mark of the sorrows of the land today, you see ramshackle huts and makeshift shelters crowded together to house refugees driven from their homes by modern arms as harsh as any of Herod’s.

The hill up to the little town is not one for hurry, and the lovely countryside offers a good excuse to stop and rest awhile. You note the terraced gardens of Palestinian peasants with vineyards built around with a wall, and a watch tower in the middle exactly as in the parables. The hills and valleys stretch away to the Judean desert. The cone-shaped mountain containing Herod’s palace provides an odd contrast with the peaceful, rolling hills. Today the land still remains much as Mary and Joseph must have seen it. That sight may disappear as the growth of modern Jerusalem creeps outward, and becomes visible over the hills facing Bethlehem.

As the night had hemmed us in, now the morning filled us with a sense of openness. Men were opening the shutters of their shops, bakers carrying baskets of bread, and errand boys with brass trays and miniature coffee cups were signs of Bethlehem awakening to a new morning. Then, as we finally reached the top of the steep slope, suddenly every church bell of Bethlehem burst out ringing for Joy. It was a great welcome for our first Christmas as sunshine flooded the place still happily called, Manger Square.

Each of us brings to Bethlehem his own nearness to the story of Christ’s birth, and rich recollections of his own childhood memories. At the first sight of the town the refrain of music and words tumble out, “Once in David’s royal city,” “O little town of Bethlehem,” and the more urgent, “Come, come to the manger.”

Bethlehem’s only boast today is the Basilica of the Nativity. It stands to the east of the town linked by corridors of shops that outline a nave-like open space, and stretching westward to the rising hill of homes that look with watchful windows on the the town of Bethlehem itself.

The entrance to the Basilica is a little iron door, a kind of social leveler for every pilgrim. Prince or pauper must bend to enter the place of the Nativity.

Eastern incense and the heavy scent of beeswax candles pervade the church. Isn’t it strange how odor stimulates the memory like music? It recalled to us distant shrines like Walsingham, Canterbury, Lisieux, and the Roman catacombs or, nearer in time and place the great Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem.

It was the Magi through one of those unusual happenings of history who saved Bethlehem’s Church. When Persian conquerors ravaged all the Holy Land in A. D. 614, they came with destructive intent to Bethlehem. Within the Church, though, they saw with wonder kings in royal Persian dress painted on the pillars of the nave. They spared the Basilica out of reverence for their ancestors, and you can see even now those same Magi figures darkly outlined on the Roman pillars.

The main Church was strangely empty on our Christmas morning. This part of the edifice is Greek Orthodox. Its golden ikonostasis seemed dusty and faded, the few oil lamps dim in the sunshine. The Orthodox celebrate the date of Christmas according to the older calendar two weeks after our western observance. But the old Greek priest stood at his candle stall near the high altar; he knew we western Christians would be coming for our morning Masses.

Below the grotto of the Nativity was by contrast crowded with more than 100 people. A Catholic hush of sisters, priests, men and women with a few restless children prevailed as over in the “manger corner” a priest was concluding Mass at the altar of the Crib.

Tired from her walk Mary sat on the steps of the grotto on the edge of the crowd, and able to see nothing. As the Mass ended, the priest managed with a little struggle and flutter of vestments to pass through the little throng.

A tall Franciscan friar started moving through the crowd making for the altar, and behind him a magenta zuchetto bobbed up and down indicating a bishop, at least, and people always seem to cherish a bishop. Then, we recognized him as the very bishop who had arranged our wedding. He was going to the altar of the Manger to offer the morning Mass of Christmas.

That simple low Mass, the warmth of the cave, the welcome of the Catholics from Jerusalem and Bethlehem made it a different Christmas for us than any other. As we offered Mass, a guide with some fast-moving tourists noisily came down the steps; he announced loudly that his group has only five minutes to see the place, and asked if we could hurry and give them a chance to see the site of the Nativity, and the altar of the Manger. Like a voice from a world knowing little of the sacredness of the feast, he reminded us of what a humble thing our Catholic Church is. We are a minority, a little flock, a group of friends who are also God’s people with a very personal sense of being specially favored. Here, the memory of the little Babe who was the “missionary of the Father,” and the reality of the little cave, scene of his lowly earthly origin, was the meeting place not only of rich kings but lowly shepherds, of pious pilgrims and profane tourists, of innocents and slaughterers. The little Lord Jesus was still carrying, it would seem, the burden of the world in this Church where Christianity began. For this universal Church we prayed, for all its intentions, as we also remembered our families and, above all, our own yet unborn child.

Afterwards in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, drinking hot coffee in the sun with some French and Spanish sisters, we knew a gladness which no other Christmas had ever given. We were full of joy that in our own way we were bearers of a great treasure brought back to the manger of the holy child born in Bethlehem so long ago.

Desmond Sullivan lives in Jerusalem; he travels extensively in the Middle East and acts as area correspondent for the worldwide National Catholic News Service, Washington, D.C.

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