Violence still threatens Bethlehem, 2,000 years after

Published April 1, 1998

Bethlehem, Palestine

FEBRUARY 6, 1998: The city of Bethlehem is quiet tonight. There are rumours of war in the area. Armed soldiers hover around the checkpoint, ever alert. Few people walk the dark streets. In my mind I imagine that somewhere a woman screams giving birth, like she screamed the night the soldiers raped her, just as they have raped her land and occupied her people. I already know about the occupation. The stories of violence I will hear over and over again on my visit.

I am finally in my hotel in the centre of Bethlehem. The security check at the Tel Aviv airport was uncomfortable. Why are you here? I am a tourist. Are you traveling alone? Yes. Are you carrying any weapons? No. Any gifts for anyone? No. Did anyone ask you to bring in anything? No. Who do you know? Nobody. What will you be visiting? The holy places. Will you be visiting any local people in their homes? No. Where are you staying? The Bethlehem Grand Hotel. Why Bethlehem? That is where the manger is.

A Roman Catholic nun, visiting the Holy Land for the first time, touches the 14-point silver star that marks the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

February 7: I walked easily from my hotel to Manger Square. I hadn’t really believed Khalid, the proprietor, when he said just to hang a left at the bottom of the street and work my way down the cobbled streets. But there it was. After I pushed through the local cars honking to get around the taxis and the tour buses, I faced an empty square with a small door in the wall ahead. The entrance to one of the holiest of places.

I stooped to enter. Inside the huge chamber, crowds of tourists milled around their tour guides. They clutched their cameras, ready for that significant shot and fingered their tour I. D. cards as if to legitimize their presence there.

Alone and apart, I stood quietly, savouring the moment. I sidled up to the tourists, catching now and then a word from the female guide. She pointed out a mosaic floor that had been uncovered by archeologists. It was centuries old and looked like a Persian carpet but it was made of coloured stones. As the crowd moved away I took a picture.

One after one the guide pointed out the silver and gold artifacts adorning the altar, explaining their history. Then the group moved towards the place. The guide’s voice dropped to an audible whisper. She explained how this site of Jesus’ birth was considered the most accurate. The local people remembered, she said, and the word was passed on by mouth through the centuries. This is as close as it gets, she stated.

Bending, I entered the narrow entrance to the grotto and climbed carefully down the uneven steps, worn by the feet of thousands of pilgrims through the centuries, before me. Suddenly I was alone in front of the manger. The hum of the retreating group mingled with the quiet steps of the incoming group. I stood reverently for a moment then knelt to touch the very spot where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. Tears welled up. My chest felt tight. I bowed my head in a silent prayer.

Here, where there was no room at the inn, there was always room in a cave or a stable. Stables were important places. They provided shelter for the beasts of burden. They were warm, cozy places, appropriate places for a Saviour to be born.

Later I had lunch outside, across from the square. The smell of gas from the tour buses filled my nostrils and the persistent honking of horns filled my ears. Children chattered and ran around playfully. Local women passed carrying their grocery bags of pita bread, Jaffa oranges, eggplant and tomatoes.

I pictured the scene as it might have been on that night. The neon star in the square faded and a brilliant light shone over the place where Jesus lay. Shepherds hurried down from the nearby hills. An angel herald had startled them with these words, “Do not be afraid. I bring you news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11a). They were not to fear, the guide had told her group, as they might have feared the coming of a king, a king like Herod. Rather, they were to witness the birth of their Savior.

Back at the hotel, there are rumours of protests in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and in Hebron. When we visit there later in the week, we will be going into the dragon’s mouth, a new arrival says.

February 9: The conference begins with a tour of the Sea of Galilee. So I am not a tourist after all. I am here on a more sinister mission, to see for myself the rape and occupation of the Palestinian land. The conference is organized by Sabeel, an ecumenical liberation theology movement, which encourages individuals and groups from around the world to work for a just, comprehensive, and enduring peace informed by truth and empowered by prayer and action. `Sabeel’ is Arabic for `the way’ and also a `channel’ or `spring’ of life-giving water. On the tour I meet two delegates from the Anglican Church in Canada: **Bishop of Calgary, Barrie Curtis, also President of the Canadian Council of Churches, and Joy Kennedy, **

Speakers and participants will discuss the theme: The Challenge of Jubilee. What Does God Require? Throughout the year of 1998 the State of Israel will celebrate fifty years of statehood while the Palestinian people will remember fifty years of dispossession and tragedy. It is time for peace in the land.

As the year 2000 approaches, when Christians around the world will celebrate the birth of Christ, there is no more peace in Bethlehem than there was then. It is time to call for the re-establishing of God’s holy order of justice, compassion, mercy and forgiveness: “good news to the poor … release of the captives … recovery of sight to the blind … let the oppressed go free … proclaim the year of God’s favour” (Luke 4:18 NRSV).

The journey that began in the city of Nazareth with Joseph leading his pregnant wife on a donkey, did not end in a stable in Bethlehem. It wound its way through the lives and hearts of the people of Palestine, through its tiny villages, and finally into Jerusalem where there was a cross and a grave nearby. It continues today in the hearts of all who seek that life-giving water and who believe in the vision of Jubilee that Jesus announced in the temple in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-20).

The city of Bethlehem is quiet tonight. There are rumours of war in the area. In the sky the stars come out, one after the other. For those who have eyes to see, one star shines brighter. It is the star of hope and faith. It is the light of the world that will not be extinguished as long as it lives in the hearts of God’s people. It is time to act on that hope and that faith. God’s time. The time of God’s Jubilee.

L. June Stevenson is editor of Glad Tidings, a Presbyterian Church publication. She recently returned from a trip to the Holy Land.


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