Sunday, December 24, 2006


Our newspapers are reporting a downturn in tourists visiting Bethlehem at this time of the year. Just as they reported last year. I visited Bethlehem a few years ago when tensions were escalating and getting across the border into Palestine was problematic. The checkpoint was a flux of tension and a crossroads of hate. Those in uniform treated us with disdain and we were pushed around. Regardless of what passport we were carrying. I was walking through with some French and Germans. A French lady who had been through before, and who had become our guide, advised us to make like the Palestinians and to keep our mouths shut. So we did and after a long, hot, and dusty wait we were through.

In Bethlehem we found a hive of activity and the winding walk up to the Church of Nativity was one long construction site as new buildings were going up, new fibre optic was being laid, and plumbing dug in. There seemed to be a real energy in the air, and we were chatted to by children in the street and waved at by Palestinians who were keen to sell us trinkets and badly made brass souvenirs. An enduring highlight was a schoolbus that crept past us with smiling kids at the windows, many of whom yelled out “hello” and “bonjour” – a telling counterpoint to the border crossing experience of a few minutes earlier. Children are great equalisers.

I visited the regular tourist stops and was impressed with the various claims made by those who insist Jesus was born at this or that spot. But I was more convinced by the presentation of a cave, one of many stables around Bethlehem, that seemed to my imagination to be a more credible place of his birth. And I was even more impressed by the realisation that these hills and vistas were those also walked and seen by Jesus – those impressions had more impact than any particular church site.

Church of the Nativity Forecourt
But over the years the enduring remembrance of Bethlehem has been the profound divide between Israelis and Palestinians, all on top of the place where the Prince of Peace was born and not too far from where he died. There is a terrible irony and pathos in what Bethlehem stands for today, when in its roots there is something more powerfully contained.

Micah knew as much 700 years before his birth.

"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times."

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labour gives birth
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be their peace.

And there was a final irony that I have never understood – it was more difficult for us to cross the border from Israel into Palestine to visit Bethlehem than it was to return to Israel. Over in seconds and after an idle glance at our passports. Maybe we had just struck an ornery security detail on the way in.

On this Christmas Day, and hereafter, may He be your peace.

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