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.