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.

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6 thoughts on “What I Learned in Bethlehem

  1. Hey Scott, thanks for that very thoughtful article on your journey. It was an interesting photo journey of a place I have not visited, and have not previously had a great desire to visit, in part for reasons you raise. It is also heartening for me as a Christian to read an outside perspective on something so central to my faith that is not filled with mockery or hostility. I think we get a very skewed perspective on atheism from the high-profile atheists, in much the same way I believe the crazy and vocal minority that claim to represent Christianity skew impressions of the rest.

    For me the actual place that Christ was born is not especially significant, and I believe the exact place has been lost to time. I think the point of Christ’s birth to poor parents in an obscure location is missed somewhat by the ornate surroundings on display. Despite all my misgivings and considerations, I still find no fault in the desire to visit the location of what is a sacred event to many, and wouldn’t discourage someone from travelling to this place, even if it weren’t the exact site of Christ’s birth. Many people engage in similar pilgrimages – re-tracing Darwin’s journey on the Beagle, hiking the Inca trail to the Machu Picchu etc.

    I enjoyed reading your particular experience of this pilgrimage, found your questions thought provoking. I have read many quotes that say it is more important to have the right questions than to have all the answers, and I agree whole heartedly.

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    • Thanks Douglas – I’m very glad to hear you noticed the balance I’m trying to hold. I don’t think hostility helps much, especially when exploring something as sensitive and nuanced as what we believe and feel about the universe. A reader suggested I call the project “A Seeker In Jerusalem” as that might better reflect the broadmindedness I’m after, but at least for now it seems better to offer a contrast – as Jerusalem is not known for its atheists 🙂 I am not a believer, but I am fascinated by belief, its history, its implications and that’s what the project is about.

      Visiting Bethlehem reminded me of visiting the birthplace of anyone with great fame (U.S. Presidents, etc.) – there are similar patterns for how the truth is stretched and for what fans, or pilgrims, most desire to see. It’s hard for a place that wants visitors not to bend things in the direction of what visitors want – which arguably has nothing to do with Jesus, the presidents or whoever achieved the fame, as they no longer get to participate in how they are remembered.

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  2. Thanks for a great article, Scott. I too found it thoughtful, balanced, and well worth reading. I think I would’ve left dismayed too. It’s the difference between faith, as exemplified by the man you saw studying his Bible, and religion: all the trappings and all the rigmarole that people lay on top of faith. Sometimes religion can help people find faith, sometimes it can help encourage or enlighten the faithful. But most of the time, I’m afraid, it just reminds us how much we humans differ from the objects of our faith.

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    • I find the layers between faith, belief and religion fascinating and how every individual finds there way in it. The surprise in Bethlehem was how centered everyone’s experience was based on tour guides. Given the safety concerns, most people travel and visit here with tour guides, who each has their own take on what is being shown and what it means. Our tour guide was a Palestinian Christian, and he did a nuanced job at putting specific things we saw in the context of historical validity vs “tradition” which I appreciated. But I think the nuances are lost on most people, who aren’t particularly well read or studied, and who have traveled from very far away and have high expectations.

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  3. Reading about your experiences from Bethlehem, Hebron, and the Temple Mount, it strikes me that the religious significance of these places have been overshadowed by two intrusive phenomena: on the one hand, the violent history and ongoing conflicts of the place are diverting attention from the religious history and the uniting abilities of the religious institutions. Being confronted with heavily armed guard, questioned, maybe even searched, before entering a holy area, and feeling the hostility or suspicion (real or imagined) of the “rivaling” culture disturbs the visitors ability to fully relax and experience the place on its own (religious) premise. Do visitors come to see the holy spot or to get a feel of the “battleground”? Often religious zealots have used the holy places as (divine) encouragement to justify their hostility towards their enemies, and increasingly these acts become a greater novelty than the message of peace that all three Abrahamic religions preach.

    On the other hand, the institutionalization of the holy places, which are designed to enhance the religious experience, often seem to muddle the experience of the visitor. As you mention about your Bethlehem experience, the great amount of tourists, tourist guides and amateur photographers, as well as souvenir stands, donation boxes, eager priests and devout worshippers, all disrupts the tranquility and serenity one expects to find in a holy place. So what is the difference between visiting the Eiffel Tower and the Church of Nativity? Is it just a question of being able to say you have been and snapping a couple of selfies there? As much as we would like to imagine holy places to be above the commercialization of tourists traps, we must realize that very few people come there to passionately contemplate their faith, like the young man in your picture, and those who do intent to, have a hard time finding the solitude to do so.

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    • There’s this idea that popularity destroys things – it’s unexpected, but by becoming popular our most favorite people, places, rock bands or movie stars change – the popularity changes them and can change them to a point where they’re no longer like what they were that drew the popularity in the first place.

      2000 years is a long time to celebrate anything and it’s not a surprise, in a way, that there would grow so many distractions around such a simple thing: a place where someone was born.

      The Eiffel tower is an interesting example – as what people come to see is the building, and therefore the building hasn’t changed (much – they have added lights and minor things). But to come to a place that’s about a moment in time, or a person, it’s far easier to change things.

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