We woke up far too early (given that I went to bed around 2) in order to get some breakfast and head out for a day of tours. Nidal was back and he did a wonderful job showing us around the sights of Bethlehem, complete with some commentary from the Palestinian perspective…but not too much, because joining our group for the day was a Canadian military couple who work in Iraq and are quite pro-Israel. It was an interesting dynamic, to say the least!
We started out in the Church of the Nativity, the oldest standing and still functioning church in the Middle East and (therefore, in my mind) possibly in the world. It’s a wonderful place I have visited before, and was even more wonderful this time because there were other people in it and because it was Christmas Eve. Last year I went during the summer, when the Apartheid Wall was just being built around Bethlehem, and tourism was nonexistent. I remember being so angry that the main industry of this town of such importance had been destroyed, and that people couldn’t and wouldn’t travel to this wonderful church built on the site of Jesus’ birth. It was deserted, as was the rest of the town. This year, though, at Christmas time (peak tourism for Bethlehem), there were plenty of people. Enough people that the other members of my group were, I think, irritated at them.
The Church of the Nativity is built on top of a fairly large cave that was once used as a stable. During Roman times (and before) caves were often used as homes and as shelters for animals, with just a little thatched shed built out over the entrance, or sometimes just a cloth or animal skin covering the door. Troughs were carved out of the rock to hold food and water and keep it relatively fresh for animals, which works especially well for hot summers and cold winters as the stone keeps a relatively stable temperature. The grotto of the nativity, the part of the cave where tradition says Jesus was born (and the part that, archeologically speaking, is most likely because there is a carved trough/manger there) is under the altar of the Greek Orthodox section of the Church. You enter through the “door of humility” (a post-Crusader addition that has to do both with not being big enough for horses and forcing people to bow while entering) and find yourself in the nave of a Basilica that hasn’t changed much since Justinian. Yes, there have been rebuildings, renovations, etc, but the original floor is visible through some trapdoors, the columns are there, and you can even see some original frescoes on the columns. There are large sections of 800 year old mosaic on the walls. The windows are near the ceiling and light shines in in geometric shapes. You can still see bullet holes in the windows and damage to the mosaics from “the siege” in 2003 when people barricaded themselves inside the church for five weeks.
This has been a holy site for at least 1900 years…between 100 and 135 the emperor made it a pagan temple in an attempt to discourage Christianity. Queen Helena visited and ordered a church built there in the 4th century. The church was saved from destruction during the Persian invasions because of a mosaic depicting the three wise men (in Persian dress). It was reconstructed and preserved by the Crusaders and used as the place for crowning the crusader kings of Jerusalem. It is still a functioning church used by multiple denominations, and is a pilgrimage site for thousands of people each year. There are three masses held every morning in the grotto—Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic. The place smells of incense and is thick with the cloud of witnesses. And this year I didn’t have to worry about taking pictures, and I felt it. I could feel the Holy Spirit in this place, and it was wonderful.
It got even better for me when we exited the grotto and moved through into the Roman Catholic church (Saint Catherine) which is connected/part of the Church of the Nativity but is much newer. This sanctuary was built on top of the rest of the cave, which we were not allowed to enter last year. This year we just walked right in…to the tombs of the Innocents, the place where the angel is said to have visited Joseph and told him to flee to Egypt, and some other unidentified tombs. The Tombs of the Innocents are particularly touching, as there are a whole bunch and they are very small. We kept walking through (it’s quite a big cave) and we came to the cave where Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. Talk about a religious experience for someone deeply rooted in the Protestant Reformation ideals of Scripture in the language of the people! To stand and sit in the very places where the first Bible translation was made was quite an experience. It literally took my breath away. Jerome is also buried down there, and his tomb is just outside “his” cave. It was, in a word, cool.
After our visit to the Church of the Nativity, we took up a place on the police pavilion (on the second floor of a corner building a block off Manger Square) to watch the parade of the Scouts. Scout troops are incredibly popular over here! Apparently this is a movement that has really caught on, especially among Palestinian youth—which I think is great because it gives skills, social opportunities, and keeps kids out of trouble. yay! Anyway, there’s a huge parade in which the scouts, most of them Catholic, from all over Palestine (if they can come) march up the streets of Bethlehem and into Manger Square. There are bagpipe bands, drum and bugle corps, flag bearers, and kids of all age who just march in doing nothing in particular. Some of the pipe bands were FANTASTIC. Others were, well, less fantastic but still fun. Never say that “nothing” good came of the British Mandate period! Anyway…the scouts parade through the streets and line up in Manger Square to wait for the Patriarch. They wait for a few hours for The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem who comes to Bethlehem (through a special gate…more on that later) and parades through the streets, the square, and into the Church. The scout parade was probably an hour long, just troop after troop. When it was over we hopped a local bus and went to Shepherd’s Field, where the angels proclaimed the good news to the shepherds. As we were walking in to the complex (fields, archeological excavations of a Byzantine monastery, some cave chapels, and two churches) our group spontaneously burst into “Hark! the herald angels sing….” which was totally fun. Inside the cave chapels we sang “Angels we have heard on high….” and inside the Roman Catholic church there (beautiful and with wonderful acoustics!) we hummed the “Gloria” parts of it. It was wonderful and beautiful and excellent. We also poked around the excavations a bit. Sorry, archeologists. I don’t think we disturbed….much. ;-)
After hopping a bus back to the town and grabbing a wonderful lunch in our hotel, we headed back into the square to watch the Patriarch come to town. It was better than waiting for Santa, because we never knew when he would finally arrive. It seems he made very slow progress through the streets of Bethlehem (probably because they were so crowded). The poor priests and altar boys were just waiting and waiting and waiting, standing in the cold in their two straight lines, waiting for the high priest of Jerusalem to show up. The scouts were getting antsy, playing snippets of Christmas songs, breaking into random cadences, and generally getting a little rowdy. When mr. patriarch finally did come, it was hard for us to see him even though we had front-row “seats” right at the police barrier. What felt like the entire Palestinian police force formed a human chain that went between us and the line of priests/altar boys, and the altar boys were between the police and the patriarch, who was surrounded by two other bishops. In other words, we didn’t see much besides the hot pink hat. :-)
Once the parade was over, we had some free time so we headed to the Milk Grotto. Want to talk about sketchy historicity? This is it. I don’t know exactly what the point is here, except that according to tradition, the holy family moved to this cave (about 100 yards from the first cave) “on their way to Egypt.” Right. Supposedly Mary nursed Jesus here, and a drop of her milk fell to the floor, causing the stone to be a chalky white. If couples are having trouble getting pregnant, they are supposed to take some of this stone, grind it up and put it in milk or water, and drink it. Inside there are pictures and letters from people who have managed to have children after visiting here and doing that. I am having a difficult time imagining eating rocks to get pregnant, but whatever. It wasn’t my favorite place, and I can see why we skipped this particular site on last year’s trip.
At about 4.30 we braved the rain and headed to Christmas Lutheran Church (just up the hill from Manger Square) for their Christmas Eve service at 5pm. This was my first ever Christmas Eve service, and I was not disappointed. It was PACKED full of people—so full that there were probably 50-100 people standing at the back of the church, plus people standing down the aisle and even in the organ loft. The service was conducted in three languages—German, English, and Arabic. We sang and prayed together simultaneously in probably more than three languages. The sermon, by the German pastor of Redeemer Lutheran (I think the one in Jerusalem), was excellent. (it was in German, but we were given a printed English translation when we came in.) We had candles…the lights went out when it got dark outside and we passed the light. It’s amazing how much light candles put out. Just one candle can really make a difference….and just one light-filled life can probably really make a difference too. We sang with our candles and tried not to light each other on fire. When we left the church to go next door to the reception (which had wine and great snacks!) it was still raining pretty hard so our candles all went out before we could process with them, but that’s okay. It was a wonderful service and exactly what I had hoped for in my first ever Christmas Eve service. It’s so excellent to be in a place where you can really experience the global nature of the gospel, and to be surrounded by people celebrating the light coming into the world with candles and singing!
We had a little break after the reception….we met a Palestinian hairdresser and four of us went to his shop so Jason could get a haircut. He was a pretty interesting guy. Among other things, he told us that there had been rumors on the internet of a bomb plot at Manger Square on Christmas Eve, and that three people had been arrested in Hebron because of it. It was quite the interesting evening! We left his place a little late, but we managed to get back only a few minutes late for dinner. Then we rested up a bit, and at 9.45pm we gathered in the lobby because the guests of the Casa Nova get to use the private Franciscan entrance to the Church of the Nativity for the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. There were some problems with using that door, though, because of “security” (which, given what we had heard a few hours earlier, didn’t seem so bad!). There were Palestinian police snipers on top of every building, including the church and the building across from my window. We waved at him, he waved back and laughed. I hope he watched the Square and not my window. Anyway…the Square was packed and there were huge lines of people trying to get into the Church for the mass. There were probably several thousand people who ended up staying in the Square for the whole mass, and hundreds more who watched it on tv from the hotel or the shops around the area. It was cold and raining and windy, so I can’t imagine it was very pleasant outside. We finally got in and found places to stand—very near the lectern and altar, which was exciting! It was crowded, and got more crowded. Everyone was standing. There were readings and songs before the mass proper began. Once the mass got started (about 11) we could follow along in a booklet we were given. Everything was in Latin. There was lots of incense. We were all standing and couldn’t see much. The Patriarch gave a sermon in Arabic and French (so we got to hear it twice but understood basically none of it either time). He celebrated the mass complete with the censing of the host and the ringing of the bell to alert us all that the bread was being broken and elevated, and then the wine being poured and elevated. When they served communion, they gave only bread, not wine. (for the record, we left during the serving of the communion and we did not take communion in the RC church on Christmas Eve.) Aside from the TV camera and everyone’s digital cameras, it was an incredibly medieval experience. I could actually imagine and even experience what it must have been like in Europe before the Reformation. It was cool! We were surrounded by people from various countries—Italy, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, England, France, and probably lots more. There was a guy in front of me who tried almost 20 times to take the same picture, with little success. There was a Filipino nun to my right who chanted along every single word—in Latin. We sang along in Latin whenever we were supposed to. We breathed the incense. We were a few feet away from someone who fainted and had to be revived and taken out. It was hot, our feet were tired, our backs ached. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, came about a third of the way through and stayed until the Mass had been celebrated. We watched the security guys with their phone-cord earpieces. We were pushed and we did some pushing back. We listened and watched and smelled and sang and read and prayed with thousands of other people in the church and in the Square, and thousands more who watch it on TV all over the world. It was incredible. The service lasted until 2am (we left at 1.45). Three hours just for the mass, plus at least an hour of preliminary stuff! It was really amazing, a wonderful time, an experience I will never forget. I have stood in the place where millions of others have stood through the centuries, where millions of others want to be able to stand, and it was the best way I could have spent my first Christmas Eve away from home, my first Christmas Eve in a church, my first Christmas Eve without my mom. “the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.”