Has It Always Been So?, Christmas 1 - 2000

December 31, 2000

O Little town of Bethlehem,
The hopes and fears of all the years are met again this year in you.
Has it always been so?

It was certainly so ten years ago.

Some ten years ago, a tourist reflected in this way about his surprising visit to Bethlehem:

My adolescent daughter and I were with a small group of six American tourists making a pilgrimage to Israel. Our visit to Bethlehem was our first trip outside the city of Jerusalem and nothing could have prepared us adequately for what we were to experience. Nothing could have prepared us for the Jewish - Palestinian tension and fear, and nothing could have prepared us for the strange sign of hope we were to see.

Although Bethlehem is only ten minutes by car from Jerusalem, we were stopped at three check points: concrete barricades where soldiers asked us to get out of the vehicle; checked our papers; and, with those curious long-handled mirrors, checked the underside of our bus for bombs. In this case, the drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem took an hour and a half.

When the little tour bus arrived in Manger Square, the center of Bethlehem, we saw for the first time not only the expected tourist shops and restaurants spilling out onto the sidewalk and square, but also the gray fortress-like police station, the pointed circles of barbed wire, and the soldiers who patrolled the roof tops to protect us from snipers, it was said; but their weapons were trained on us. Heeding the warning of our guide, we did not linger in the square. We were taken quickly into the cavernous church of the Holy Nativity. After a brief lecture about this remarkable building, constructed by the order of Helen, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, on the spot where she believed Jesus to have been born, we were taken down to the little crypt chapel to the actual place where Jesus was born.

Stooping to enter the little grotto chapel, darkened with years of soot from the vigil lamps honoring this holy place, our eyes gradually grew accustomed to the dark and our noses to the smell of oil and incense. We could not speak, and our silence seemed in a strange way to be a part of the darkness and a part of the surrounding rock. After a few moments we heard, within the silence, light footsteps descending the narrow stone stairway from the church above. Not knowing who or what to expect our eyes were drawn to the arched doorway.

A young Palestinian boy-man entered the room, and paying no attention to us, went directly to the rock where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. After standing silently for a moment, he dropped to his knees, bent forward and kissed the rock.

If God were to kiss the earth today, would it be in Bethlehem?

O Little town of Bethlehem…
The hopes and fears of all the years are met again this year in you.

Has it always been so?


Laura King, writing for the Associated Press less than two weeks ago, had this to say about Bethlehem this year:

No twinkling strings of colored lights. No pilgrims packing Manger Square. This Christmas is shaping up to be a forlorn affair in Bethlehem, the town of Christ's birth. Today fierce gun battles rage between snipers and Israeli machine gunners in the nearby suburb of Beit Jalla. Bethlehem's three Palestinian refugee camps boil with fury and discontent. Dozens of Palestinian stone-throwers, some as young as 8 or 9, have been hurt or killed in cat-and-mouse battles with Israeli troops guarding a fortified Jewish shrine on the edge of Bethlehem.

Tourism has dried up. Most souvenir shops are tightly shuttered, and the lumbering tour buses that normally clog the narrow streets this time of year are absent. In Manger Square, the big stone plaza fronting the Church of the Holy Nativity, was all but deserted. An old man in an Arab headdress hobbled slowly across the nearly empty expanse, leaning on a cane. Inside the vast and ancient church, the only visitors in sight were a lone Palestinian mother and child.

"Usually, there would be a wait of two or three hours to go down into the grotto," the lamp-lit, cave-like enclosure beneath the church, where faithful believe Mary gave birth - "but now you can just walk in," said a Palestinian tourist policeman who would only give his family name, Shakameh.

O Little town of Bethlehem…
The hopes and fears of all the years are met again this year in you.

Has it always been so?

If God were to kiss the earth today, would it be in Bethlehem?


Bethlehem has seen grim Christmases before.

Luke, the author of the third Gospel, writing two thousand ago, had this to say about Bethlehem:

Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

O Little town of Bethlehem…
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in you then and now.

Has it always been so?

God kissed the earth in Bethlehem.
If God were to kiss the earth today, would it be in Bethlehem?


Today, God kisses the earth again--in Bethlehem--and here.

God kisses the earth again wherever there seems to be no hope. God kisses the earth again wherever there is no justice. God kisses the earth again wherever there is no peace. With the risk of God's own wounding and death, the God of love comes again to embrace the earth with hope like the hope of birth.

With great respect and with silent power, God comes again to judge us with God's own extraordinary vulnerability and to nudge us--as if God had only the power of a baby's cry--to coax us, but never to coerce us--to love.

O Little town of Bethlehem. O little town of [Please add the name of your community here.]

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Contact:
Christopher Sikkema