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Discovering modern-day Bethlehem

A trip to Bethlehem.

OUTLOOK  - “O Little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie…”

This well-known Christmas carol paints an image of a quiet village under a star lit sky the night Jesus was born. Writer Phillips Brooks was an American minister who visited Bethlehem in 1865. He penned a poem about that experience and asked the church organist to compose a simple melody that children could sing on Christmas Eve. Two local women, in a visit to Bethlehem, found that although the town is different than the carol might suggest, the experience of being there is one not soon forgotten.

Sheri Lovrod (Outlook) and Heather Elliott (Ardath) were on a tour of the Holy Land recently and one of their first stops was Bethlehem, a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. With a population of more than 28,000, the thriving city bears little resemblance to the image “O Little Town.”

“Of course it was supposed to look like a Christmas card,” Sheri said with a laugh. “There would be blues and whites just off in the distance and it would be really peaceful and ancient looking.”

“Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by…”

The reality was startling initially. Heather said, “It was so busy. It was anything but a small, quaint experience.”

Every location considered sacred in the region has a church built on its site which draws many visitors. “There were so many tourists going in and out of all these churches all day long,” Heather remarked. “I can’t imagine if that was your home church and you’re being invaded by people all the time.”

That wasn’t just the case in Bethlehem, but in places like Nazareth where Mary, the mother of Jesus, was raised. Tradition suggests the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary at the community well to tell her she would give birth to a baby and would call him Jesus.

Sheri said, “We entered the Greek Orthodox church and there was a worship service going on but we literally walked between the pulpit and pews down a mosaic-lined hallway to the location of Mary’s Well.”

A journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for Mary and Joseph took place after the order from Caesar Augustus was given that a census of the Roman world would be taken. The couple travelled about 90 miles to be registered in Bethlehem since this is where Joseph’s ancestors lived.

Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory, something tourists take note of right away since there are checkpoints and an eight-foot wall to cross. Sheri explained, “There’s an off-putting nature of crossing a wall and a check point to enter Palestine. As soon as you enter you know the world is different.”

There is consensus regarding the actual site where it is believed Jesus was born. On that site sits The Church of the Nativity which is shared by Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic congregations. They worship separately, but own and maintain the church building together and share access to the actual grotto.

The main entrance contains the ‘Door of Humility’, a low door that requires visitors to bow down to enter. Sheri said, “Whether it was designed to be a gesture of humility or just to have kept wagons out is hard to say, but it is meaningful to humble yourself when you enter the Church of the Nativity.”

The building is very ornate, dressed for Christmas year-round and very busy. With people from all around the world representing different faiths, it was interesting to see how drawn people were to the place Jesus was born. Heather said, “There were so many people and so much noise. The line to get to the grotto was three hours long.”

“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light…”

Heather and Sheri also saw Shepherds’ Field where those tending sheep that night encountered the angel announcing the birth of Jesus. Caves where shepherds would have lived can be entered and in one of the caves the group joined in singing ‘Joy to the World.’

There are two churches on the Field, one that is ancient and one that was completed in 1953 built by Canadian benefactors and affectionately known as the Canadian Chapel. Here the group sang ‘O Canada’. The ancient church is the Chapel of the Angels and is filled with carvings on the ceiling alternating from angels with faces and eyes raised in praise, with those that have their eyes and faces lowered in humble adoration. This was quite moving for Sheri who said, “I thought that was a beautiful theme.”

The walk that took the shepherds from the field to Christ’s birthplace was lengthy and mostly uphill. That first Christmas night the shepherds were told who they were looking for and that there would be a sign. Luke 2:12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

Many may think the ‘sign’ the shepherds would find is a baby, but there was more. It was explained that the Hebrew custom would not have been to wrap a baby, but to cover a baby. Shepherds would wrap their lambs, but babies were never wrapped. “So Jesus being wrapped in swaddling cloths was a very unique thing for the shepherds to look for,” Sheri said.

Visiting Shepherds’ Field gave her a deeper sense of the place where Jesus was likely born. “I was taken by the reality of the caves and that it was a manger in a cave. I feel I have a better picture of that now.”

Heather said, “Just knowing the distances they had to travel stood out for me. We did everything by bus, but they did everything by foot. Just the magnitude of them having nothing, and yet everything that was happening was so important that day. That’s what stayed with me.”

The visit to Bethlehem isn’t going to change anything about Christmas for Heather, but she shared the whole trip was impactful. “I loved everything I saw,” she said. “There was so much to take in and we did so much each day. Everything we saw and learned was overwhelming at times and I am still trying to take it all in.”

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Bethlehem is now a modern-day city bustling with tourists and the everyday lives of all its citizens, but it has not forgotten its important history. While it continuously faces turmoil, there is a sense of hope that can be felt. “The reality that although there is political unrest, and some of it is certainly steeped in religious divide,” Sheri remarked, “among Jews, Muslims and Christians there is a recognition of the sacredness of these sites. They work together inside Arab territory behind a Palestinian wall. It’s not the peace of Bethlehem that we look at on Christmas cards but there is a certain desire for peace in Bethlehem.”