On a cold winter’s evening, on a bus bound for nowhere, I met up with a bishop, we were both too tired to eat. So we took turns a starin’ out the window at the darkness… That’s what happened when I drank an eggnog, felt the Christmas spirit, and decided to pen a country song. Apologies to Kenny Rogers, but my satirical lyrics really do describe how last February’s adventure to dinner began. Thaedra and I found ourselves with the United Methodist Kentucky bishop, his son and two exchange students in the private home of a Bethlehem family.
This particular bus happened to be heading south from our hotel near Old City Jerusalem toward the West Bank town of Bethlehem in Palestinian controlled territory. The areas are under completely separate governments: Jerusalem by the State of Israel; Bethlehem by the military force of Palestine. They are also separated by a $14 billion dollar wall. Liken it to the one between North & South Korea or the former Berlin Wall.
Our hostess, Therese, a veritable, Martha Stewart minus “Snoop,” grows lemons, dates and olives in the family garden on their property just outside the home’s lower level entry. I’m rather certain none of us had ever enjoyed truly homemade homegrown lemonade; genuine virgin olive oil (I’m talking first press of the olives) and eaten dates plucked from just out the window. My wife threatened to slap me under the table when I started to ask where they got the chicken (for the record, we didn’t see any running around outside). The lady even sent home with us an emptied wine bottle she’d filled with her freshly pressed olive oil…some of it still sits on our counter. This amazing family extended gracious hospitality to us. It was warm, sincere and they wanted to share their culture and Christian experience as a Greek Orthodox family living in a Muslim world.
Before dinner we stood on their terrace overlooking the landscape of the town; it was beautiful. In fact, almost like you’d expect the modern evolution of Christ’s birthplace to look: seemingly tranquil and peaceful.
Somewhere in the midst of the buildings rose the belfry of the Church of the Nativity…the venerated site of Christ’s birth. It’s grotto beneath the main church protects the place heralded to be the very spot God entered the world as a baby boy on a night, in a cave, among the stench of animal dung, to an unmarried mama who’s fiancé was planning to high-tail it out of there after the drama unfolded. But God had another plan. He usually does…and fortunately, for us, we usually don’t see it.
Who am I to question Christ’s birthplace and what it has become? Honestly, if He knew then His home country would be in an area suffering contentious fighting, then why didn’t He chose somewhere else? Many other “little towns” evolved into awesome places: like somewhere in Manhattan on 5th Avenue ….just down the street from Bergdorf-Goodman’s or something with a nice water view like Sausalito? Seriously, talk about a place just a few miles from Sonoma where Jesus could turn something into wine (wrong millennium…and how selfishly American of me).
The Bethlehem skyline is accentuated with these worshipful, architectural spires all over the place. Extremely bright green LED strength lights illuminate the tops. They’re impossible to miss. As a matter of fact, if you happened to be Captain Sully piloting a 737 over the area, you’d think: “Hey, I better hike this bad bird up a little or I’m going to hit something.” Then it hits you…literally shocks you when this shrill, piercing sound fills the air calling the Muslim citizenship to pray toward Mecca. It’s at this point we realized these green spires weren’t there for pretty, rather the spires reach toward heaven honoring Allah. We were, although in Bethlehem, in predominately Muslim Palestine.
Near the cradle of civilization, in the land of Ramadan, faiths intermix. Ram’s horns beckon Jews to worship not far from where Ramses the Great ruled. Bethlehem is not the fabled place we believe it to be. It hasn’t been still, peaceful and has not afforded much dreamless sleep since that Roman census saw a pregnant virgin girl arrive on donkey with her humiliated fiancé. Yet, back to his ancestral home, the place we sing of and the angels harked about in nearby Shepherd’s Field, they navigated.
To be a modern citizen in the Little Town of Bethlehem here means many things. To our host family it means:
- Applying for government passes to go through the wall to Jerusalem just a few miles away once per year to shop: for furniture, for clothing, for “the better shops.” I equated what they shared with being able to go to Costco once a year.
- Living with the CONSTANT threat of having the water supply cut off. It happens with extreme regularity. Jerusalem controls the water Bethlehem gets. Citizens make practice of collecting water; rain and municipal water, in cisterns so that when the supply is cut, people can continue to function until it is restored.
- Working on the Israeli side of the separation wall means going to stand in line early… so early that they can literally “immigrate” legally to their places of employment daily. Returning home, I got the impression, is not as arduous a process.
- Waiting until government authorities say you can go see the doctors on the Israeli side of the wall. The Jewish medical system is highly advanced and offers some of the best care available anywhere.
Thaedra asked Therese what it’s like to live blocks from where Jesus was born. She responded that it is an honor—almost unbelievable for a faithful Christian. I have to think Muslim passersby see Church of the Nativity as inconsequential, possibly unnoticed. The story from Bethlehem, 3A.D. is a lot like the story of Bethlehem 2018 A.D. (all you politically correct people can keep your c.e.). People not looking for a savior weren’t going to find Him; they still do not.
The gift and the question of Christmas is: “somewhere not far from here” in this holiest of lands Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say I am?” As His followers we still have the ability to answer this question everyday. To imitate someone is to pay the highest compliment especially if imitating Christ is the focus.
This Christmas I propose an answer by action: Not to live as Victorian age prudes, not to be pious scripture spewing ne’er do wells and hypocrites, but to live reflecting a genuine light of love. Modern Christians are called to produce peaceful-quantifiable action motivated by concern for people and to exist as charitable servants among our fellow brothers using our gifts & resources within our respective spheres of influence to bless the people around us.
He selected this birthplace because over the millennia not much has really changed here. From Roman persecution of Biblical history to the modern tensions this region faces, God’s message resonates through the ages: Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men. Here in the heart of Bethlehem we are reminded “(E)ven the Son of man came not the be served, but to serve, to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).”
Christmas….it all started here.
(Therese has a master’s degree in nursing and works full time in a neonatal intensive care unit at the local hospital, her husband is a local tradesman and is learning English. Their twin high school age children were quite like American age teenagers. We were blessed to spend an evening in their home).