In Israel we looked out from the college terrace over the ancient olive groves to Bethlehem below. Going to Bethlehem from Tantur Ecumenical Institute is only a 15 minute walk, but entering the town seemed daunting. The reason why, was that between Israel and the Palestinian territories the Israeli government have erected a very large Wall (think something like the Berlin Wall in height) with fortifications, check points and security. The check points are manned by soldiers of the Israeli army. To go through the Wall from both sides involves a long walk under snaking covered walk ways through an area like an airport passport and security area. Lots of signs forbidding photos.
Of course, our worries were mistaken as the Israeli soldiers basically just waved us through, sometimes with a smile. However, this isn’t the case for Palestinians. They are well searched as the stated intention of the Israeli security is that the Wall is there to stop terrorist attacks by Palestinians. Not counting terrorism, the Wall itself has had consequences for everyone, Israelis, Palestinians and tourists all have had the normal flow of life disrupted by it. During our month at Tantur we had many conversations with Palestinians and Israelis about the Wall. Those Palestinians living in Bethlehem and working in Jerusalem have to have work permits to allow them to work in Jerusalem, and these get suspended from time to time, often for no apparent reason, children (Primary and Secondary age) going to school in Jerusalem can find that they are restricted from attending school, sent home and regularly get searched, sometimes all this seems to be on the whim of the soldiers, some, little older than those they search. There seems fear with both peoples, but the power is held by the soldiers.
We wished to go to Bethlehem, because this is where Jesus, the Son of God was born. Mary and Joseph didn’t have the difficulties we had, other than they had walked 75 miles from Nazareth to go to Joseph’s ancestral city. They would have walked the same land, seen the same road and as they entered into Bethlehem two thousand years ago, walked the same hills. Now, Mary and Joseph were heading for Joseph’s family home, when they got there (due to a Roman census requiring people to go ‘home’) there is no room for them in the guest room. It’s like a first century chaotic ‘family’ Christmas, in fact the first Christmas! Middle Eastern hospitality dictates a welcome for visitors, pregnant women and husbands aren’t sent away!
When we walked to the place tradition says is the spot of Jesus’ birth, we come to a large Church building ‘The Church of the Holy Nativity’. It’s been here from early days, we come to tiny door, stooping to get in. The place of the birth is underneath the building in a cave. Our guide, a Palestinian Christian, explains 1st Century houses were often built on top of small caves giving an extra room, often used for sheep and cattle. Mary would find this cave, ideal being warm, safe and private. Jewish law, meant women gave birth away from other people so as not to make others ceremonially unclean. The cave was perfect. For believers, and those who would like to believe this grounds everything in reality. God becomes human for us, so we can share in divine love. Now, this wonder and mystery is something we celebrate at Christmas. We have a number of Carol Services and everyone is really welcome to join with us. So, why not, come with me to Bethlehem and worship?