Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bethlehem

         
Regardless of the time of year one visits, it is always Christmas in Bethlehem.   For westerners like myself, approaching the little town of Bethlehem involves a return to one’s childhood, to Christmas carols and Nativity sets, to a lost time of wonder and innocence.  In my memory of Christmases past, it was always snowing in eternal Bethlehem.  One comes to Bethlehem now with the expectation of finding the tranquility of the stable seen on a thousand Christmas cards, with the three wise men parking their camels outside, and a star softly shining directly overhead.
            Except that now the “little town of Bethlehem” does not enjoy a “deep and dreamless sleep” beneath “the silent stars”, nor does it “lie still” like the song says it does.   Rather it now lies within the troubled borders of the Palestinian Authority, and its embattled and besieged Christian population survives largely on tourism.  Its sleep is not dreamless; most of its Christian population dream of leaving the town and the armed Zionist state, and many already have.
            Furthermore the stable portrayed on a thousand Christmas cards never was a stable as northern Europeans knew stables.  It was a cave.  Even as early as the mid-second century, the Church recorded the local tradition that Christ was born in a cave.  St. Justin Martyr writes in chapter 78 of his Dialogue with Trypho, “Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village, and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger.”  Origen, writing a little later in 248, says that
“In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes.  And the rumour is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians.”  St. Jerome knew of the cave’s location, and took up his own monastic abode right next to it.  Entrance to that abode can be found from within the present day church.
            In the days of Mary and Joseph, Bethlehem was a tiny little hamlet, so small that the slaughter of its toddlers by Herod didn’t even show up in the history books.  (After all, history could focus upon much more important people slaughtered by Herod.)  And in those ancient days the area around Bethlehem was wooded, and contained a shrine of the pagan deity Tammuz.  Constantine soon changed all that.  Bethlehem was one of a number of sites he chose to adorn with large and splendid churches.  The church which Constantine built in Bethlehem was destroyed by the Samaritans in the sixth century, but later rebuilt by Justinian in 565, and it is this building which survives until today.  You can even see some of the original mosaic on the floor through a trap door.

            To enter the Church of the Nativity (as it is now called), one has to enter through a small door.  In Justinian’s day the door was appropriately large and grand, but the Crusaders filled it in to reduce its size, and in Ottoman times it was reduced in size even further so that looters would not drive their carts through it.  It is sometimes called “the Door of Humility” because everyone must bow a little to enter.  No bad way to enter such a holy place.

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