O Little Town of Bethlehem
'O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by'
No doubt this Christmas carol, written in 1868 by Phillips Brooks an Episcopal priest then in Philadelphia, likely sounds familiar to many. He was inspired by visiting the village of Bethlehem three years prior, at that time located within the Sanjak of Jerusalem, an Ottoman administrative district. Things have certainly changed! The Ottomans are gone, the State of Israel exists, as does the Palestinian West Bank. It is in the region of the West Bank that the, now city of Bethlehem, currently resides. So when visiting Bethlehem today, located merely 6 miles south of Jerusalem, you will be welcomed by the Palestinians. To access this city, however, you will need to travel through Israel.
When traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem the first thing you encounter is reality; a checkpoint at the Separation Wall along the Green Line that separates the West Bank from Israel. Once beyond this near-encircling tall cement barrier with watchtowers, you immediately enter the hilly city of Bethlehem (Beit lechem meaning "the house of bread"). The population of Bethlehem is comprised of both Muslim and Christian Palestinians, with Muslims being the vast majority. As of 2016, the Christian population of Bethlehem had dropped to 12%, merely 11,000 people. I visited Bethlehem twice within the past five years. Both times my tours of Bethlehem were led by Christian Palestinian guides who live there. Tourism, particularly Christian tourism, is what fuels their sputtering economy. That being said, life for them is a real struggle in the oppressed and constrained region. So, I provided a bit of REALITY first; 'TRADITION' next ...
Bethlehem is DEFINITELY worth your visit as it plays a significant role in biblical history. As per the bible stories, "tradition holds" that Bethlehem was home to David, the second king of the Israelites circa 1000 BC, was the birthplace of Jesus circa (?)6-2 BC, and factually the birthplace of the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the bible, in the late 4th c AD. Hence, there are several interesting sites to see in the city, beginning FIRST AND FOREMOST with the Church of the Nativity.
Church of the Nativity
'Away in a manger
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down His sweet head'
The original church at this site was commissioned by Helena the mother of Roman Emporer Constantine upon the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and was dedicated in 339 AD. Christian tradition holds that it was built over the cave where Jesus is believed to have been born, three centuries prior. Not an inn and not a barn, but a cave. In the Judean hills, it was common for primitive homes to be built over or in front of caves, which were used for both storage and as animal shelters. The basilica that you currently see when visiting Bethlehem, however, is one that was built by Emporer Justinian in the 6th century AD to replace the smaller, original church. Remnants of the beautiful mosaic flooring from Constantine's original church, though, can still be viewed inside. Entrance to the basilica is through a very low door, 'The Door of Humility'. The now-embellished subterranean cave grotto, within which Christians believe Jesus was born, can be entered by steps to the right of the ornate iconostasis that is in front of the main altar. The Church of the Nativity is the oldest Christian church in the world and has continuously functioned and served the faithful since its conception to the present time. It is in the possession of the Greek Orthodox Church.
'Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace'
Manger Square is the vast pedestrian-only city square in front of the Church of the Nativity. It garners importance, particularly during Christmastime when it hosts a large, beautiful Christmas tree. Christian pilgrims gather in the square, sing Christmas carols, and watch the Christmas Eve midnight mass on large-screen monitors taking place in the adjacent church. Christmas, HERE, is celebrated THREE times a year ... December 25th, January 7th for Orthodox Christians, and January 19th according to Armenian Christian tradition.
'Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled'
In keeping with the recurring challenges posed regarding the confirmation of authenticity, the 'Shepherd's Fields' do not disappoint. Per solely the Gospel of Luke, Christian tradition holds that the angels first heralded the birth of Jesus to the lowly shepherds while grazing their sheep in the fields. Today, three different areas all located in the 'suburbs of Bethlehem', but then in an adjacent town called Beit Sahur, are venerated as being 'THE fields' depending on whether one is Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. Given that grazing fields do not lend themselves to archaeological preservation AND the area was under pagan Roman control for 300 long years prior to Christianity being accepted by the Roman Empire, it is certainly NOT SURPRISING that three different areas are venerated. What is actually more surprising is that there are not even more such fields vying for the title of authenticity, if authenticity even exists.
The red-domed Greek Orthodox church called 'Church of the Shepherds' is located on the eastern part of Beit Sahur. Along the northern part of Beir Sahur is the tent-shaped Catholic veneration site called 'Chapel of the Angels', administered by the Franciscans. Eastward of both of these is a meadow filled with pine trees and said to be the Protestant site.
Not far from the Church of the Nativity lies a shrine hollowed out of soft WHITE ROCK called the 'Milk Grotto' venerated by both Christian and Muslim pilgrims. 'According to tradition' (and some imagination), it was a cave where the Holy Family stopped as they were fleeing King Herod's soldiers en route to Egypt. While they stopped so Mary could nurse the baby Jesus, a drop of her milk fell upon the stone and turned it white. This makes for a lovely story but is not recorded in the bible. Matthew's Gospel is the only one of the four that alludes to the 'Flight to Egypt' but notably does not provide this detail. Despite that, the Byzantine Christians chose to venerate this site by building the first structure over this cave in the late 4th century. This grotto is held especially dear to new mothers and those trying to conceive. In the late 19th century the Franciscans erected a church around the Milk Grotto.
St. Jerome's Cave
In yet another cave beneath the Church of the Nativity lived an ascetic named St. Jerome who spent 30 years translating the scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. Those translations of the bible, known as the Vulgate, first began here around 386 AD when Jerome moved from Rome to Bethlehem at the commission of Pope Damasus I. There, he lived in a cave and established a monastery. With St. Jerome's arrival, Bethlehem became a monastic community. Access to St. Jerome's cave, which consisted of only two rooms, is from the Church of St. Catherine, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. St. Jerome died in Bethlehem at the age of 80.
As you can ascertain, Bethlehem is a very special location in biblical tradition, particularly for Christians. Bethlehem also spawned the most enduring version of the Bible ever translated. Given that history, it is genuinely sad that the Christian population is dwindling so rapidly in the region. For those interested in visiting Bethlehem, I can recommend an excellent English-speaking tour guide named Ashraf Shaheen. He is very gracious and knowledgeable. He lives in Bethlehem and is able to guide throughout the West Bank, but (sadly, again) not in Jerusalem. His contact information can be found at www.fb.com/ashrafshaheentourguide.
As a side, it is noteworthy to mention that I have previously blogged about a popular street artist by the name of Banksy who is also an activist. His themes oppose violence, war, political injustice, and social inequality, among many others ... and he sprays his paint, liberally, to consistently communicate his messages. A locale that happens to yield a high concentration of his works is Bethlehem, Palestine. Banksy has taken an interest in the Middle East conflict and has made significant artistic contributions to the Separation Wall between the West Bank and Israel. In fact, he even opened a hotel in Bethlehem, adjacent to the Separation Wall where you can actually stay, called the 'Walled Off Hotel', his riff on the 'Waldorf Hotel.' It is advertised as having the "worst view" and features many murals within it, painted by Banksy himself. Check it out!
I encourage you to visit Bethlehem! Experience BOTH its biblical TRADITION and its current REALITY. No doubt you will leave with heightened inspiration, appreciation, and AWARENESS as both your heart and your eyes will be opened.
'Do YOU see what I see??'
Lastly, I wish all my Christian readers who celebrate, A Very Merry Christmas and a Healthy Happy New Year! Hopefully, 2021 will be a healthier year for all and travel will soon re-open.