Christmas in Bethlehem

Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Image by Christopher Chan via Flickr

In Bethlehem for Christmas! Who has not longed to spend one Nativity season here, where still “the silent stars go by”? Frosty winter skies set Judean stars atremble-celestial tapers lighted for the Feast of Lights. The same stars which startled Judean shepherds as they watched their shaggy flocks down in the Field of Boaz and heard the angelic song which lifted their eyes to Bethlehem, huddling on its hill-cozy out­post of the homes of men, before the lonely desert. Shepherds and angels-the sordid and the ethereal, the practical and the aesthetic! Eternal paradox of the elements which entered into the incarnation of the King of Love.

Even if December skies let down their loads of heavy winter rain on Christmas Eve, rains cannot extinguish the charm of little lights blinking out from the stout stone cubes of Bethle­hem homes. For Bethlehem has a glory all its own, which has not departed down the centuries of racial strife and religious feud. In Bethlehem imagination is fired, hearts sing, people leap over barriers of creed and circumstance to join about the cradle of a Child unseen, yet known.

His light still shines in Bethlehem town

Where long-limbed camels stately stalk

And matrons virtuously walk

In ample headdress flowing down

About their ample-skirted gown.

His light still shines in children’s eyes

That nightly feast on starry skies

And intimately know the sheep

That shepherds on their hillside keep

On nights too heavenly for sleep.

His light still shines above the lamps

Where creeds contend in hostile camps.

For not in incense-stifled air

His presence breathes, but yonder where

The people walk in Bethlehem square.

Bethlehem Panoramic

Image by betta design via Flickr

Following the trail to Bethlehem year after year, we have come to feel deep attachment for this domestic little town on its hilltop of history. Its personality has the simplicity of all eternally abiding things. Its elevation, 2,800 feet above the Mediterranean, satisfies one’s expectations for the place where, “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” We wish that we might say that from every one of its two thousand flat­roofed homes the lights of Christmas trees blaze forth-for Bethlehem is predominantly a Christian Arab town, with few Jews and only a minority of Moslems. But Bethlehem knows no such extravagance as Christmas trees loaded with strings of lights, peppermint candies, and glittering toys, with a village laid out below. Bethlehem is itself that Christmas village­eternally. Life is real and life is earnest in this romantic little city of narrow streets, outer staircases, crusader arches and vaultings built into homes that have stood century after cen­tury with nothing to disturb them but occasional earthquakes. More substantial, these Bethlehem homes, than flimsy subur­ban houses in quick-building America, each with its Christmas tree, even if whole forests have been cut down in the process. Yet Bethlehem homes have their own type of Christmas merry-making. It consists in the arrival of kinsfolk from neigh­boring villages to feast together on homemade cakes and home-pressed grapes from the terraces below the town. Beth­lehem citizens have emigrated far and wide, even as did Naomi and her sons. But they never lose the bonds of home. If on Christmas Day they find it possible to return, like Jo­seph, to be “enrolled” in the house of their fathers, happy they are. And in many a Christian home, denoted by a white cross painted over the door-a square one if the family is Greek Orthodox, a Latin one if it belongs to the Western branch of Christendom-there is a homemade creche, modeled after the original manger lying under the basilica in their own town. Of toys there are few; piasters are too scant in the average Bethle­hem purse. The nearest approach to a community Christmas tree is the “eternal light,” a star set up by the British on a pole in the open square in front of the Basilica of the Nativity.

Just as Luke’s Gospel features Christmas at the manger and the shepherds’ Christmas in the fields, so do modern celebrants at Bethlehem center their observance of the day about those two scenes. Foreign consuls, Government dignitaries, and patriarchs of the branches of Christendom, followed by throngs of picturesque villagers and stately citizens of Bethle­hem, make Christmas Eve in the Grotto of the Manger at the old Basilica of Constantine a memorable event each year. And down in the Field of the Shepherds the International YMCA of Jerusalem sponsors an informal Protestant service, which is both artistic and soul-satisfying.

The Latin Patriarch starts out from Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate in the afternoon of Christmas Eve by motor-formerly by horse-following his equestrian cross-bearer, whose banner floats proudly between silver olive groves as they near Wise Men’s Well-where, tradition says, the lost star was refound, when its reflection was seen in the water while the thirsty camels drank. Reaching the last hilltop before mounting to Bethlehem, the procession of joyous Palestinian Christians, foreign consuls, Government commissioners, and Arab police is seen by Bethlehemites thronging their roof tops. And what roof tops, for star-scapes twinkling with silver beauty; and for entrancing vistas over the valley toward the Jordan and Moab, north to Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, or southeast to queer, truncated Frank’s Mountain, where Herod’s pleasure palace stood.

“They are coming!” echoes through the deep Judean valley. Bands of orphans from the Franciscan and Salesian Schools play. “Te Deums” are sung by Jerusalem clergy in the com­pany. And in the Latin portion of the historic basilica, the Church of St. Catherine, vespers begin: “Rex Pacificus mag­nificatus est”; and the Canticle of Mary, “Fecit mihi . .. magna beatam me decent omnes generationes.” One service fol­lows another, with visiting priests from several nations partici­pating. The midnight Mass, of course, brings the climax. It is sung down in the Grotto of the Manger, where the words are chanted, “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.”

A view of part of Star Street in Bethlehem on ...

Image via Wikipedia

But even more stately is the procession presided over by the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, his bearded face veiled and crowned by the tall black cylindrical hat of his office. His branch of Christendom holds the choicest portions of the Ba­silica of the Nativity-Constantine’s own, begun in the fourth century, improved by Justinian in the sixth century, and today the most-loved church in all the world. Its four rows of mas­sive red monolithic columns with Corinthian capitals, on which Crusader knights carved their crosses, divide the spa­cious nave into five aisles. When the bells of midnight sound the beginning of Christmas from the towers where mother birds guard their young, the Greek Patriarch enters the basilica from the monastery and begins the exalting service of worship. Elaborate crowns and vestments of the Eastern Church are donned and doffed, the wealth of carved icons on the rood screen and the tremendous Greek cross catch the glint of flickering candles, amid wreaths of rising incense. Balls of red and blue, like Christmas tree ornaments, glitter on the deco­rative chandeliers. Bethlehem Christian women, in tall tar­boosh with floating white veils, look like flocks of great white birds as they bow and rise in the ritual of worship. Thrilling is the moment when the thronging procession of Palestinians and visitors from many lands moves round and round, cir­cumambulating the precious colonnade, behind bishops, priests, nuns, school girls, and acolytes, and then finally de­scends to the grotto for the climax of the service.

That rocky grotto, cut into the side of the east face of Beth­lehem hilltop, is one of a series of caves and was probably used as the stable of the inn when Mary and Joseph were assigned places there by an unsympathetic and unimaginative inn­keeper two thousand years ago. At least Jerome, who in a similar cave nearby translated the Scriptures into Latin in the fourth century, believed it to be so. And in the second century Justin Martyr mentioned this Cave of the Manger. The grotto is only fourteen yards long and four yards wide, its walls hung with incense-stiffened tapestry, and its silver star marking the place “where the young child lay.” The arrangement of the fifteen silver lamps of the three Christian bodies having claims there-Greeks, Latins, Armenians-is as delicate a matter as the rites of sweeping the grotto. In fact, a quarrel between the Russians, sponsoring the Greek Orthodox Church, and the French, sponsoring the Latins, sped up the Crimean War­yet out of that war came a Florence Nightingale and the founding of the modern humanitarian profession of nursing. Great are the potential quarrels when annual cleaning day, December 28, comes. About two years ago, a providential snow fell on that nervous day, so that the particularly “deli­cate” matter of the north cloister windows could not be gone through with. So they were left “in status quo.” No disorders that year! The slightest change, even to the bringing in of one extra candle, is complained about to the Government and is used to trump up dissatisfaction.

How little the worshiping throngs on Christmas Eve in the vast, impressive basilica are aware of the historic scenes which have taken place there! For example, that Christmas Day in 1101 when Baldwin came to be crowned first Christian King of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, after the noble Crusader leader, Godefroy de Bouillon, had been elected to this high office and declined, preferring to be known only as “Guardian of the Sepulcher of Christ.” How little the worshipers know of the priceless treasure under the stones on which they walk -no, not treasure of gold and silver, but more precious treas­ure of archaeological knowledge. For in 1934, during extensive repairs on the basilica, a large extent of the original mosaics laid for Constantine’s floor in about A.D. 330 came to Ijght, about eighteen inches below the present floor. Why such beauty was ever covered over by Justinian in the sixth century no one knows! Was it just a whimsical “change in style” that dumped construction rubble over the colorful pomegranates, apricots, grapes, and conventional scrolls of bright yellows, blues, violet, and green? At any rate, the rubbish preserved them for later centuries to see. After the mosaics had been photographed and studied by the Palestine Department of Antiquities, they were again covered with a floor for modern worshipers, with only a few choice portions left on exhibit for visitors to enjoy.

Image via Wikipedia

The fact that five Masses are proceeding at one time in the Basilica of the Nativity, and that throngs of worshipers jam it to utmost capacity, with a jealously-guarded “schedule” main­tained for rights of the various groups to enter the Manger Grotto with their smoking tapers, makes the Christmas Eve a disappointment to many Westerners, who prefer the informal program of the Jerusalem YMCA in the Field of the Shepherds. Several years ago, Dr. A. C. Harte, former general secretary of the Jerusalem Young Men’s Christian Association, to whom much of the exquisite symbolism of the superb new edifice on Julian Way is due, with its Jesus Tower, its Prayer Chamber, and its Arabic fireplace, had also another vision. It occurred to him that if the YMCA could purchase a portion of the Field of the Shepherds, where rich Boaz tilled the land below Bethlehem, it would be forever an ideal place where Protestant Christians might celebrate the birthday of the Christ. An acreage was bought in that historic place, gleaned once upon a time by Ruth, ancestress of Jesus. Not until sometime later was it discovered that there was a delightful cave on the property-one which apparently had been used for centuries by shepherds for their shelter when storms overtook them as they watched their flocks. Many interesting implements were found in it. But more valuable than these “unconsidered trifles” is the Christmas Eve atmosphere the cave lends to those who “to Bethlehem hasten, to worship the King.” Within the past year, the Field enclosure has been surrounded by newly planted trees-a boon to denuded Judea. About noon on the day before Christmas, a party of “Senior Leaders” go out from the YMCA, by bus to Bethlehem, and hike down over the stony terraces to Tel-Boaz. There they find that Audeh, the caretaker, has already assembled the makings of a huge bonfire, and Hannah is in the cave preparing the tabun (flat loaves) for the feast. After a hearty meal, the Y men set to work increasing the wood supply at the western end of the field, looking up to BetWehem. At five in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, hundreds of visitors begin to arrive from Jeru­salem-members of Protestant churches in the Holy City, travelers from the west and east, and onlooking Palestinians who have come to see what it is all about.

Already athrill with the privilege of spending this Christmas Eve in the Field of the Shepherds, the guests are summoned to partake of the simple feast consisting of mutton roasted on live embers and served in little chunks with the fiat coarse bread in little round loaves, similar to those which Jesus ate. By the time the shepherds’ open-air meal is over, twilight has fallen and the twinkling lights of BetWehem mass together like a galaxy of stars. The guests stroll over to the bonfire to drink their fill of lighted BetWehem windows and of huge, low-lean­ing Judean stars. Never do the heavens bend so low as above the Field of the Shepherds on Christmas Eve. Huge, trembling, intimate they are, looking as though the very heavens would open and again an angelic chorus would sing of “great joy which shall be to all people.” And right through the fields of the celestial spaces, shooting stars fall with thrilling brilliance.

The Christmas Eve service of worship is simple and brief–:­just the singing of carols; the reading of the Christmas narra­tive in Arabic and in English: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord…. Ye shall find the babe… lying in a manger”; a short message from a visiting clergyman; and an informal prayer. But what over­flowing hearts, each reading into that high experience a wealth of personal memories and everyone feeling himself a part of that original shepherd group who, “as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, … said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us”!

Each year more people attend this Christmas Eve service­- last year about four hundred. And the holy season does not end then. It is continued in Jerusalem in the magnificent new building, the enduring Christmas gift of a American, James Newbigin Jarvie, of Montclair, New Jersey. At the entrance two growing trees are effectively floodlighted for the occa­sion. Inside the elegant lobby with its Arabic art a real Christmas tree is gay with a Western gaiety unfamiliar to the ancient East. In the auditorium a Christmas pageant is pre­sented, “The Three Wise Men,” in which the participating shepherds, seekers from the Orient, Herod, and other partici­pants are so “native” that they look as if they had just strolled in from Jerusalem streets. Palestinians so love drama portray­ing scenes from their own history that they demand an extra performance of this excellent Nativity play. Such projects are building that brotherhood of the Prince of Peace which he came to establish for all the world.

But even if it is never your good fortune to spend a Christ­mas Eve in Bethlehem, you may always have Bethlehem come to you, as you seek the Child who came to earth on a Judean hilltop:

How far to Bethlehem? “How far is it to Bethlehem Town?” “Just over Jerusalem hills adown, Past lovely Rachel’s white-domed tomb­Sweet shrine of motherhood’s young doom.

“It isn’t far to Bethlehem Town­

Just over the dusty roads adown,

Past Wise Men’s Well, still offering

Cool draughts from welcome wayside spring; Past shepherds with their flutes ofreed That charm the woolly sheep they lead; Past boys with kites on hilltops flying-And soon you’re there, where Bethlehem’s lying, Sunned white and sweet on olived slopes, Gold-lighted still with Judah’s hopes.”

And so we find the Shepherds’ Field And Plain that gave rich Boaz yield; And look where Herod’s villa stood. We thrill that earthly parenthood Could foster Christ, who was all-good: And thrill that Bethlehem Town today Looks down on Christian homes that pray. It is not far to Bethlehem Town! It’s anywhere that Christ comes down And finds in people’s friendly face A welcome and abiding place. The road to Bethlehem runs right through The homes of folks like me and you!

– Madeline Sweeney Miller

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