O Little Town of Bethlehem (the irony of it all)
On the first Christmas the Prince of Peace was born in Bethlehem. It seems like such a natural connect but in reality, peace and Bethlehem haven’t been on speaking terms for centuries. The city was burned into my memory forever during my visit in 2006. We loaded the bus at our upscale Jerusalem hotel, headed south and drove less than ten miles. As we approached the entrance to the city, Hillel Kessler, our Jewish guide exited the bus. No Israeli civilians are allowed into Bethlehem. It occurred to me that I was in solely in charge, we were entering a Palestinian area and I had no idea what I would do or even who to call if something went wrong. I thought everyone would feel better if I kept this epiphany to myself. We entered the city through a gate in a 24 foot high wall dividing things Palestinian from things Israeli. Razor wire was draped along the wall like the Christmas lights draped above our fireplace at home. After our bus was thoroughly inspected and searched by soldiers we were cleared. Steel doors on a track slowly opened, we inched through and they clanged behind us.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Welcome to Bethlehem. Modern Bethlehem today is about the size of Belleville and about half its residents are unemployed. In thirty seconds we traveled from the first to the third world and from digital color to black and white. I had not experienced that sensation since crossing from West into East Germany in 1983. Political posters stapled to telephone poles extolled the glorious exploits of the young Palestinian suicide bombers they pictured. We drove to Manger Plaza, arrived at the Church of the Nativity and filed off the tour bus. Tension hung in the air like thick fog. There were hundreds of eyes watching us. I had this feeling that if someone tossed a firecracker a riot would occur by the time the puff of smoke cleared. Peace on that day was held together by the dollars I carried in my wallet and the hopes that I would leave some of them in Bethlehem.
The Church of the Nativity has survived 14 centuries of conquests by Persians, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Ottomans, Jordanians, Brits and Israelis and isn’t much to look at. It is a rude stone complex with a single entrance through a door four feet tall. The door was lowered a few centuries back to cut down on the number of conquering Generals riding into the worship space on their horses. Future conquerors will at least have to dismount. Under the musty altar is a small cave and it is there people believe Jesus was born. We see the famous star, take a quick peek below, grab a lunch featuring Falafel and other entrees I found mildly appetizing at best. We then walked to one of the few remaining gift shops in Bethlehem and quickly head back to bus. We are paraded through an inspection center, in which I made a wrong turn and made go through twice, waved through the checkpoint, watched the gates close behind us, pick up Hillel and took a deep sigh of relief.
O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God, the King, and peace to men on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary and gathered all above while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
Michael Finkel wrote in his 2007 National Geographic story, “The truth is that Bethlehem, the ‘little town’ venerated during Christmas, is one of the most contentious places on Earth.” I discovered in our most recent trip, where we actually stayed in Bethlehem, that a Palestinian born within the city limits has the mathematical possibility of never being able to legally live the city. Bethlehem does not just feel like a prison, it is a prison! How ironic that the birthplace of the Prince of Peace is in fact a veritable prison.
A few years back I spoke to a Belleville chapter of the Rotary and rode to Fishers Restaurant with Chris Eckert and Phil Climaco. During my devotion, I juxtaposed the romanticized Bethlehem that exists in Christmas carols with the gritty one that existed in my 2006 visit and probed questions about peace. Phil Climaco asked me, “If peace cannot be found in Bethlehem, then where can we find it?” Silence. It was a very good question.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
After my devotion at the Rotary in 2008, the car was pretty quiet. As Chris, Phil and I crossed 159 on our return to the just built new sanctuary, our 80 foot spire with her 12 foot gold cross dominated the eastern suburban sky; perhaps not so different than the star that dominated the Bethlehem sky long ago. Phil said, “If people can’t find peace in Bethlehem perhaps they will find peace right here. Let’s pray they will find peace at Christ Church.” And we did.
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.