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Christmas in Bethlehem

Christmas in Bethlehem

In 1865, a young American clergyman names Phillips Brooks journeyed on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. At the end of his journey he attended the Christmas Eve Service at the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square. The experience moved him and, although he returned to America, the memory vividly remained within his heart. In 1867 Brooks used these powerful memories as the basis for writing his famous carol, O little Town of Bethlehem. At the time he was Rec­tor of the Church of the Advent, Phil­a­del­phia, Penn­syl­van­ia and he wrote the carol for the children of his Sunday School. Brooks has been called ‘the great­est Amer­i­can preach­er of the 19th Cen­tu­ry’ and was known for his sup­port of free­ing the slaves and al­low­ing for­mer slaves to vote. In 1869, he be­came Rec­tor of the famous Trin­i­ty Church in Bos­ton which to­day stands in Bos­ton’s Back Bay. In 1891, he be­came Epis­co­pal bi­shop of Mass­a­chu­setts.

A year ago Julia and I had the privilege of being in Israel-Palestine for a month. We have visited Israel before, but this extended visit provided us with the opportunity to attempt to ‘get beneath the surface’ and learn more about what was actually going on in ‘the Holy Land’. Like Phillips Brooks we too visited Bethlehem, albeit a month or two before Christmas. We found our visit both deeply moving and deeply disturbing, and in this particular blog – especially as Christmas approaches – I want to share something of our thoughts and feelings with you.

The Bible identifies Bethlehem (which literally means the ‘House of Bread’) as the city of David and the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Neighbouring south Jerusalem, modern day Bethlehem  is located in the central West Bank, with a population of about 25,000 people. It is the capital of the Bethlehem Governorate of Palestinian Authority. Bethlehem has a Muslim majority, but it is also home to one of the oldest and largest Palestinian Christian communities in the world, although the size of that community has shrunk in recent years due to emigration. Bethlehem primarily depends economically on tourism, which peaks during the Christmas season when Christian pilgrims throng to the Church of the Nativity. Bethlehem has over thirty hotels and three hundred handicraft work shops.

Bethlehem has had a chequered history. In 529 it was sacked by the Samaritans but rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. In 637 Bethlehem was conquered by the Arab Caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab who guaranteed safety for the city’s religious shrines. In 1099 the Crusaders captured and fortified Bethlehem and replaced its Greek Orthodox clergy with Latin clergy. The Latin clergy were expelled after the city was captured by Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria. With the coming of the Mamluks in 1250, the city’s walls were demolished, but were subsequently rebuilt during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The British wrested control of the city from the Ottomans during WWI and it was to be included in an international zone under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. Jordan annexed the city in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, and since 1995, Bethlehem has been governed by the Palestinian National Authority.

In recent years Israel has commenced building a huge wall around the West Bank, including Bethlehem. There are several terms for this structure. Some people call it a ‘separation barrier’, others an ‘apartheid wall’, and the Israeli authorities call it a ‘security fence.’ The word barrier is appropriate as a general term because in many places it is a high fence – topped and surrounded with razor wire and with protection zones around it, which include trenches, roads for patrol vehicles, electronic sensors and video cameras. In Bethlehem itself there is no escaping the fact that this is a wall, and its presence, has had a major impact on the town and its surrounding villages. The fence is eight metres high (about 26 feet), and it snakes through and around Bethlehem, disrupting its social, religious, cultural and economic life. Not only are the people of Bethlehem physically cut off from their own capital city of East Jerusalem, but it creates a psychological barrier too. Many are not allowed to travel to Jerusalem anyway – they need permits to visit family; work permits; health permits to visit hospitals; religious permits to go to churches and mosques in Jerusalem. But in Bethlehem the presence of the separation barrier is a daily reminder and a physical representation of their situation.

Every morning the tour buses drive through the vehicle checkpoint, from the Jerusalem side, taking their passengers to visit the Church of the Nativity … and later in the day most of them drive out again. Very few tourists stay in Bethlehem. Local traders tell repeatedly of how the tourist trade has been decimated, as a direct result of the building of the wall, and that nowadays they find it very difficult to make any sort of living from selling the craftwork, embroidery and pottery that stock their shops. From the Israeli point of view one can understand the building of the wall in some ways, in order to prevent extremist Palestinian insurgents attacking Israeli citizens, although one must also bear in mind that some of Israel’s actions are equally driven by a hawkish mentality. The stark truth of the matter, however, is that the building of this wall has resulted in the vast majority of ordinary, innocent, Palestinians in Bethlehem – many of them Christians – suffering very badly indeed.

In 2004 the International Court of Justice gave an advisory ruling that the route of the wall is illegal under international law because it is being built on Palestinian land. In most places it is built on the Palestinian side of the ‘green line’ – the UN approved 1949 boundary between Israel and the West Bank. In parts it intrudes a long way into the already small area of the West Bank. On UN maps, we can see how the proposed route of the wall creates ‘fingers’ that stretch into Palestinian land to bring Israeli settlements – areas where Israeli people have moved into the West Bank – into Israel. These settlements are illegal under international law. Near Jerusalem the proposed ‘E1 development’ intends to expand the settlements further into the area outside Jerusalem and redefine the Jerusalem boundary, in order to bring the current large Israeli settlements into Israel. One plan also extends the wall to include these areas, though there is debate about this. If carried out, the E1 development would divide the southern West Bank from the north – thus making a Palestinian state non-viable and the two-state solution unworkable?!

Millions of Christians from all over the world mention Bethlehem during their Christmas celebrations year after year, as they recall the first Christmas story.  Yet, few of these know how Christmas is actually celebrated in Bethlehem today, or how these Palestinian Christians put to one side their many problems for a brief time in order to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world! The Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem actually commence in the first week of December, when thousands of people come to the Manger Square to light the Christmas Tree.  Local choirs sing Christmas carols, fireworks are let off, and festive lights line the streets close to the Church of the Nativity. The activities and anticipation of the season build to a crescendo on Christmas Eve when over ten thousand visitors flood the town.  From early morning boy and girl scout troops lead musical parades in Manger Square and at 1.00 p.m. the Catholic Patriarch arrives from Jerusalem, accompanied by various other clergy, consuls, and the mayors of Bethlehem, and the adjoining towns of Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour. The main event on Christmas Eve starts around 8 p.m. when thousands of locals and tourists from all over the world gather at Manger Square to sing Christmas Carols.  The crowd joins with choirs from different parts of the world and the joyful singing continues until midnight. At midnight the Christmas Eve Mass takes place. It is shown on large outdoor screens in the Square, and broadcast around the world.  After the Mass everyone lingers on in Manger Square, eating and drinking and celebrating until 2 or 3 in the morning. Tourists generally stay on in Bethlehem for a day or two, but for many the celebration of Christmas comes and goes in a matter of days.

The Bible encourages to ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (Psalm 122:6) but perhaps we ought also to pray (and seek justice) for the people of Bethlehem?! ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village in Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past’ (Micah 5:2). As Ralph Sockman suggests: ‘The hinge of history is to be found on the door of a Bethlehem stable!’

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee 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.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessèd Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

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!

~ Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)

Jim Binney

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