Before my trip to Israel I thought of Bethlehem naively in terms expressed in the familiar Christmas carol as the birth place of Jesus, an idyllic little village where our Lord was born in a manger on a cold winter's night. That was about the extent of my knowledge. That was yesterday. Having now been to Bethlehem I can't say I know a lot more about it, but my impression has changed and now grounded in more real terms.
Today it is a town caught between worlds of political turmoil and religious division. We visited Bethlehem on two occasions, the first to shop and a second to visit the Church of the Nativity. The first was somewhat of a shock to my western sensibility. I've never followed the politics of the region closely, but Bethlehem is located on the West Bank something like six miles outside Jerusalem. It is a highly contentious region largely inhabited by Arabs, and a small community of Christians who are being gradually driven out by religious persecution and atrocious living conditions. For some time extreme Arab murder-suicide bombers conducted terrorist attracts on the Jewish community in Jerusalem. In an effort to put a stop to these attacks the State of Israel in 2002 built a wall around Bethlehem to keep the Arabs in Bethlehem and out of Jerusalem, with good effect, at the expense though of creating a virtual prison. Not only can the Arabs not get out but the dwindling community of Christians can't either. The border is tightly controlled by the Israeli Army both as to ingress and egress. To my mind it is no different than the Berlin Wall that so offended us during the Cold War. As American tourists on a tour bus we were not challenged. However, I am left to wonder what the case might have been had I as an individual tried to enter Bethlehem. Our group of pilgrims were shocked by this wall but then what else was Israel to do short of all out war? Under the circumstances, and armed with new insight, I hesitate to criticize.
On the day we visited the Church of the Nativity I expected to see a magnificent temple built over the site of our Saviour's birth. What I saw was the oldest complete church in the Christian world built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It replaced the original church of Constantine the Great built in AD 339; it is old and looks it. Far from a magnificent temple it is more on the outside like a fortress to which someone attached a steeple as an after thought. Directly across the plaza from the Church stands a mosque as if mocking the site of nativity. The surrounding area too is a bit run down and intimidating. Inside is little different. It is dark, dank, cold, and in sad disrepair. The multitude of icons around the altar and sanctuary of the Orthodox Church imparts an over furnished and closed in feel even though there are no pews, just a bare forbidding Nave area. Scaffolding stood throughout indicating some kind of ongoing repair, but little evidence that anyone was actually working. Our guide explained that because the Church was subject to divided jurisdiction (Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic) that it is difficult to raise funding for the church, so it stands...waiting.
We entered the site of the Nativity by a low doorway and down narrow, smoothly worn, stone stairs into a cave which has been venerated as Christ's birthplace since AD 339. The doorway was lowered around 1500 to stop looters from driving their carts into the cave. It seems appropriate to stoop low to enter the cave where God humbled himself to become a man. It reminds one of Scripture that admonishes us to stoop low to humble oneself if we hope to one day be exalted. That Christ may have been born in a cave and not a manger behind an inn is believable in that the area around Bethlehem is riddled with caves. What a logical place for the Holy Family to seek refuge in a time of need!
How ironic it is that the site of the Word made flesh is today in run down condition in a town torn by division and turmoil. Wherever we have traveled the abodes of Kings and potentates have been lavish and magnificent; Versailles, the King's Bishop's Residenz in Wurzburg, Germany, Windsor Palace in England, and the Vatican in Rome come to mind. Even the White House, austere by comparison with the baroque palaces of Europe, is an impressive monument to the more plain thinking Americans. Perhaps that's as it should be. Jesus was not accepted when he was among us and he was put to death. After all His Kingdom is not of this World.