What I Learned in Bethlehem

The city of Bethlehem is only 8 kilometers away from Jerusalem, but to get there requires crossing the border into Palestinian land. Unlike my trip to see the Cave of The Patriarchs in Hebron, the border crossing here was immense and intimidating. You can see the dividing wall, with its guard towers, stretching across the rolling hills, armed security towers and blockades every few hundred yards. To get to some of the holiest places we have it’s disorienting how much tension and negative energy you have to endure to get there. This is an irony often on my mind when I think about humanity and religion.

The tour group I was with walked under then iron fences of the security checkpoint to have our passports checked and verified. Then we scrambled across a parking lot to get in a van with our Palestinian guide. We stopped briefly on the drive to see a famous Banksy artwork on the street, protected from the street by a metal and glass shield.

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The Church of the Nativity is the highlight of Bethlehem and the place believed by many to be where Christ was born. The facts are dubious as they are for any birth or burial site 2000 years old: perhaps this was the area where he was born, but how can anyone know which cave? or which specific nook in the cave? But few people come here to debate factual matters, and you don’t need to be in these places to have those debates anyway.

It was only early December but this was clearly a high season for the mostly Muslim city, a place that depends heavily on Christian and Western tourism (few Christians still live in Bethlehem). Between the intensity of the border crossing, and the throngs of visitors, it was hard to get into the mood to want to experience a holy place.

It felt in many ways more like Disneyland, where everything was magnified, amplified and unreal, swarming with people self-involved in their reasons for coming. I wanted to carefully examine one of the amazing carvings, as many of the niches and artworks in these old churches are amazing to see, and often depict parts of the story of whoever the church is for. But after waiting for a succession of families to take their photos in front of it, I gave up and just took a photo of them (I believe the artwork behind them is a nativity scene, showing the three wise men – and Jesus in his manger is notably obscured by the family).

As a non-Christian I don’t know what the etiquette is supposed to be. Should you smile in these photos? Should they be taken at all? Are people coming to honor the place, honor their faith, or honor themselves? There are no rules posted anywhere for what the priests and the monks think, and like Disneyland much seems to be done to please the people who come to visit.

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In the courtyard just outside of the church, I was curious to discover a central statue of Sophronius Hieronymus, also known as St. Jerome. In 405 A.D. he finished translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin (the motivation and accuracy of his translation is, as it often is with early church history, much debated). He was a prolific writer, but the reason his statue is here, near the Church of the Nativity, has little to do with the birth of Christ (as Jerome was born hundreds of years later). I believe it’s because Jerome lived for many years in Bethlehem and died there. No one else seemed to notice the statue at all, but I couldn’t help but notice him looking over all of us. He had a privileged position as the courtyard he looked over was the most peaceful and solemn area in the whole complex.

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Nearby, I noticed a young man sitting and studying his bible. He was carefully copying passages in his own hand, a practice I’d see many times during my trip. Out of respect for someone actually using the church as a church, I left him alone. He was by far the most interesting person I’d seen that day, more interesting than the priests and the monks, more interesting than our tour guide. Unlike them, he was doing nothing for show. For him there was something important going on inside him, something worthy of his quiet patience. If I’d had more nerve in that moment, nerve to interrupt his moment of grace, I would have loved to talk to him.

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Inside the main basilica it was mayhem. Tour groups colliding, with their tour guides yelling over each other to keep their flocks from going astray. Most people on group tours walk around in a kind of stupor, not really paying attention to anything, and they became more of the show than anything else, as it was hard to look at anything without interacting with them first. To add to the chaos there was a renovation of the floor and ceiling in progress (revealing the original floor from the 4th century), and as the signs explained, it was behind schedule.

But I had arrived at a most fortunate moment – the line to actually enter the Grotto of the Nativity, the place where the builders of the church believe is the literal birthplace of Christ, was nearly empty. Rather than wait the expected 90 minutes, we could almost go immediately inside.

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Winding our way through a sequence of small rooms, we eventually arrived at the cramped entrance to what looks and feels like a tomb. For 1700 years there has been a Christian church here, having been destroyed, rebuilt, redesigned and modified dozens of times. It has almost no resemblance to the iconic nativity scenes so common in the United States and Europe. For that you need to go to the Shepherds’ Fields, where they have an actual cave preserved to look like the biblical nativity scene (spoiler: it was probably a cave, not a barn as in many famous European paintings).

A bright light hung over the stone doorway, and steep stairs led several feet down to a marble covered room.

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Underneath a large stone altar was a silver star marking the specific place they believe, or are suggesting, is where Christ was born. I watched as pilgrims and tourists clambered their way underneath the alter to touch, or kiss, the 14 pointed star that’s placed there (the 14 points are said to represent the 14 generations from Abraham to David, David to the Exile, and from the Exile to the birth of Christ. I guess 42 point stars are harder to come by). One woman had a backpack so big I feared she’d pull down the red cloth beneath the altar, but it was well secured, no doubt tested daily by visitors of larger sizes.

I went in myself and took a moment. It’s hard not to feel something when in a place so important to so many people, regardless of what I believe or not, but I found it all so very hard to comprehend. I considered, for a moment, what actual childbirth is like – a difficult and painful experience. I’ve traveled to many historic places, and generally the label “birthplace” is used broadly – the neighborhood, the house, maybe the room. But I’d never seen anyone anywhere pick a specific spot before.

I tried to imagine priests drawing competing diagrams to decide where they think Mary was lying down. How tall was she exactly? I couldn’t imagine this debate, but it must have happened as someone, somewhere in history, marked the spot. I know that’s not the point, but that’s the mind I have – I’m curious about the details: even within the boundaries of faith someone had to pick one spot over another. Soon I was simply thinking of Mary, who really had the staring role and the hardest work in this event, but who was mostly ignored here (on the other side of the “cave” there is an altar dedicated as the spot where Mary first put Jesus in the manger where she gets more attention, but it’s easy to miss).

I felt guilty for these thoughts, not guilty in a universal sense, but they seemed like thoughts I could have later and not the best use of my brief moments in this holiest of places. Instead I thought through my favorite parts of the New Testament, and how interesting Jesus’s life was, whatever his life really was, even if purely on philosophical and metaphorical grounds. But the physical sensation of being in this particular place, this particular spot, feeling the cold stone and sharp metal points of the star, moved me less, not more. I’d have been more stirred to sit near the young man praying with his bible in the courtyard, thinking my own thoughts as he thought his.

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As we left, we learned we were luckier than we thought. They were closing the street for a Christmas celebration and to honor a visiting Cardinal (you can see the Christmas tree in the distance, a tradition oddly not in practice during Christ’s life, now getting center stage). The security officer told us a grand procession was starting in minutes, and the church and the area nearby was about to become many times more crowded, so we fled.

I would have loved to have spent more time at the church on my own, perhaps in the quiet of the early morning, but without that option I was glad to leave, and make my way back across the border walls and to Jerusalem.

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In the end I left dismayed. I know the official answer to the question, but I found myself asking it anyway: why is Christ’s birth important to Christians? I know the theologic and practical responses. But my trouble was this: if I knew nothing about the religion at all, and tried to discern it’s meaning from this place, I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea and I’m still sorting out if I’m ok with that or not.

The Holiest Cat In The World

The Dome of The Rock is one of the most dangerous places in the world. At least it felt that way as I slowly walked alone up the quiet, empty courtyard stairs leading towards it. The entire area, called the Temple Mount, is the holiest place in the world, and for millennia civilizations have fought horrible wars to capture it. The dome itself covers the stone where Jews, Christians and Muslims believe Abraham was challenged by God to sacrifice his son Isaac – a moment that gave birth to all three faiths and perhaps monotheism itself.

At 7:30am I was let in, and walked through heavy security. Then up a long wooden walkway, a walkway that rises over the Western Wall, and past a half-dozen Israeli soldiers. It was hard not to notice how they looked me over, and the heavy automatic rifles they casually held in their arms. When Israeli Prime Minister Sharon walked in this very place it outraged Palestinians so intensely that it began the 2nd Intifada in 2000, a conflict resulting in the deaths of more than 4000 people.

After the history I’d read about this place, the wars, the violence, and the current Israeli-Arab tension centered here, I was surprised at how quiet it was. The courtyard was huge, the size of 25 football fields, and serene. If you didn’t know what it was you’d assume it was simply a lovely courtyard built by ancient royalty, designed to be enjoyed by all citizens and peoples. How could such a pretty place be the cause of so much unrest?

But knowing the history I was genuinely afraid of going to a forbidden area, or making an accidentally offensive gesture (strict Muslim policies like covering shoulders and no kissing or touching are enforced), and causing an international incident, something I very much did not want to do. But as I stood there trying to look like I knew what I was doing, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the Dome of the Rock. It is a masterpiece of grand architecture and after years of reading about it, there it was. Whatever fears I had were slowly outweighed by the magnetic pull of its blend of curves and angles.

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Carefully walking up the steps to the dome, I stopped periodically to look back. In the distance were circles of older Muslim men, sitting on plastic chairs under trees, praying quietly together. They seemed not to care at all about my presence, so I slowly pressed on. Soon the dome was just 50 yards away and I wondered: Is it ok to touch it? Can I get close to it? I looked for signs, plaques, symbols, something to tell me what the rules were but there was nothing here. So I kept walking, but in a roundabout way, hoping the ridiculous hope that it made my intentions less obvious to anyone watching me from a distance, if in fact anyone was.

Soon I was almost on the other side, in the morning shadow of the dome. I thought this would be a safer place to get a closer look. But to my surprise there was already someone there: four young Arab children were playing soccer, using one of the doorways of the Dome as their goal. What was this? I wondered. How could a place so sensitive and sacred be used by children just to have fun? I was too confused and lost in my own fears to laugh, but it was funny. Had I made up all of this tension in my mind? Or maybe Arabs were simply granted more leeway here since it was a place they’d controlled or over 1000 years? I didn’t know, and there was no one to ask.

Braver now, I wandered back to the front and walked towards the main doors. I looked around again, and having yet to earn anyone’s attention, reached forward and touched it with my hand. I expected something, a noise, a scream, the sound of guards running towards me with their rifles pointed, but there was nothing. Just me, the silence, and the cool stone of a building 1500 years old under my fingers.

I stood back to take a picture and made my best discovery of the morning. An orange cat strolled by, from where he came I don’t know, and wandered into my shot. He was barely interested in me, the Dome, God or anything. He simply wanted to go to his favorite spot in the sun and I happened to be near it.

This cat, this little creature with a brain less than half the size of any man or woman that has fought over this mountain or traveled around the world to pray here, better understood the idea of inner peace and calm than all of us combined. For the cat everything about this place that was so powerful in our histories was irrelevant, as were the fears, worries and concerns about violating it’s sanctity. If the cat could speak, he’d say “This is just a place. There is plenty of room for everyone. Now find your own spot up here and leave me alone.” There were no rules for cats here, despite how many there were for people and somehow I felt I had something to learn from this.

I watched him for a time, now half asleep in a semi-circle of feline zen, warming in the sun, a sun that has no concept of blasphemy, and felt relieved. I laughed at myself and the tense morning I’d perhaps invented all on my own. For the first time that day I was in the presence of something truly peaceful and without judgment of me or anything at all.

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Photos by Itay Cohen

God’s Dysfunctional Children

Today I visited the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Israel. It’s where Abraham, a man celebrated by Muslims, Christians and Jews, is believed to be buried (as well as other notables from the early family of the bible). After the 1994 massacre the tomb was divided in half. From the Israeli side of the tomb, you can only enter the areas in blue. From the Palestinian side, you can only enter the areas in yellow. The excellent Hebron tour I took allowed access from both sides, with an Israeli guide for one half and a Palestinian guide for the other.

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One thread running through the bible, a line of thinking shared by both my friend Bryan Zug and the tour guide I had for half of the tour, is that the story of humanity is really about sibling strife. We get lost in the drama about humanity and god, but if you focus on the sibling stories, Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael, The Prodigal Son, you discover a different lesson, another way to see what the stories may be trying to tell us. Many books of the bible, or any chapter of the history of Jerusalem, reveals a litany of brothers, sisters and family working against each other.

I was hoping that visiting the Cave of Patriarchs, the site built to remember the one person that unifies all three faiths, would fill me with a sense of connection. But as I entered each site of the now divided building I couldn’t help but think perhaps there was a lesson here we were all working very hard not to learn.

The cenotaph for Abraham is a beautifully ornate green stonework, but it’s hidden behind iron spars. And if you look carefully through the gaps you can see the window on the other side, where the faithful of another faith can honor the same heritage, looking through their own set of protective glass and steel bars.

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How Does Truth Matter (in Religion)?

When I first visited The Church of The Holy Sepulcher in 2012, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was the place best known as the location of Christ’s Crucifixion as well as the location of his tomb. When I went inside I was surprised to find, immediately inside the cramped entrance, a large stone on the ground. Despite the readings I had done, I somehow overlooked this important artifact. What was it? From observing the reactions to other visitors when they saw it, it was something important indeed.

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As I stood there watching I observed dozens of visitors pray at the stone (known as The Stone of Anointing, the place where the body of Jesus rested while he was prepared for burial). They crammed around it, their patience after a long journey finally at its end. They hurriedly kneeled down, finally seeing the thing they’d traveled so far to see. One woman unloaded several packages of candles, placing them quickly across the stone, kissing each package as she put it back into her bag. An older man to her left touched his scarf to the stone and then buried his face inside, crying. It was powerful just to watch them, not even knowing the story of what they were doing or why.

Unfamiliar with both the stone and these rituals, I wondered: how they knew what to do in front of it? There were no signs or instructions. In most churches and temples the relics are hidden behind glass or even fences, reflecting that the items are so precious no one is allowed to touch them. If no one was around I would have been afraid to get too close to it, as clearly it was an object of significance. But somehow here at the stone in was made accessible and everyone knew what to do. Many arrived with bags of objects, trinkets, crosses, candles and even pens, to place on the stone to bring back with them for friends and family.

Independent of my faith, or lack thereof, the first question on my mind was: how does anyone know this is the actual stone? I wasn’t asking this question as a way to question faith in Christianity itself. I was simply interested in the stone in front of me and where it came from, much as I’d be curious about any interesting object I found in a museum. I looked, but there was no label anywhere like you’d find in a history or science exhibit, listing who found it or even what it was (A mural on the wall behind the stone does show the story). There were no official guides or pamphlets nearby. It seemed everyone arrived at the stone, and the church, with their own guidebooks, their own stories and their own beliefs about what they saw.

Later than night I went to the official Church of the Holy Sephucler but it barely offered a paragraph about the object. I looked and looked for sources and details but found them hard to find. I discovered the first mention of the stone dates from the 13th century, 1200 years after the death of Christ. Twelve lifetimes of time. For the purposes of history that’s just a long time for an object to disappear and reappear. I couldn’t find another mention of the stone for another 600 years, when the stone was replaced as part of church’s reconstruction, yet there’s no mention of what was done with the old stone. Is it locked away? Was it lost? More frustrating is I’ve yet to find anyone who wrote a paper, book or research study specifically about the stone and its history. This mostly makes me think I haven’t done enough research. Someone must have studied this carefully in the 800 years that it’s been in perhaps the most important Christian church?

It made me wonder about the different kinds of faith we all have. No one questions everything, and no one questions nothing. In our daily lives we’re always sliding on different ends of the spectrum of what we assume and what we challenge, in each situation we find ourselves in and each relationship we have. Some people have faith they want to earn, through questions and raising doubts. Other people like their faiths to exist in another level of consciousness, where they accept things without any questions, and that perhaps is by itself part of the appeal of having trust in anything at all.

Questions:

  • Have you found more precise records of the history of the stone? Please share a link or a reference
  • How does truth matter in faith? How do you decide what to question or what not to question?
  • We are all driven by stories and the stone fits the story visitors are interested in. Does it really matter that it’s not the actual stone? It’s representative of something very important to them and perhaps that’s enough.

(If you want to follow this book project as it develops, just click the follow button on the sidebar)

What is the goal of this book?

The premise: There’s so much arguing between religions, and perhaps even more within them. Wouldn’t it be good if there was some kind of religious referee, a person without any particular faith but knowledge of them, who could help sort things? Or make interesting observations as an informed, and mostly respectful, outsider? That will be me (or that’s who I will be attempting to be).

This blog is the preliminary home for a book project that will combine my first person experiences visiting these amazing places, with insights from history, theology and comparative religion. It will be primarily a travel book about these important places, but focused on exploring deep questions about history, humanity, belief, and the past and the future.

The details: I’ll be in Israel in December spending a week in Jerusalem, observing and studying some of the most famous religious sites in the world. Chapters of the book will be subjects such as “Walking The Via Dolorosa“, “Watching at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre” and “Meditating at the Temple of The Mount“.  This will be preliminary research and I’m not certain the book will come together, or if this rough outline will hold, but there’s only one way to find out.

I hope you’ll follow along – there will plenty of ways for you to get involved.

Previous writings on religion

I’ve written many posts about religion in the past, and you can read some of the best ones here: