The Holy Land is another world and Bethlehem is another country. I do not want to go on about the politics of the country, but there is always an admixture of holiness, history and politics in everything here. To travel the few miles between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the territory captured in the 1967 Six Day War, one must go through a checkpoint. Getting into Bethlehem is easy for us; leaving it to go to Jerusalem is almost impossible for its citizens. The security Wall built in the last ten years (called by our Palestinian Christian guide Rula, the Wall of Separation) is beautifully painted with depictions of hope including contributions from the renowned modern artist Banksy and one of a triumphant Muhammed Ali.
You wind up the main street of town, Manger Street, and at the top of the hill stands proudly the Church of the Nativity. It is not massive as are the great cathedrals of Europe or even the United States. Its noble simplicity seems to state that its power does not derive from the building, but what is celebrated here. The primary entrance is through the door of humility. I was prepared for this tiny door but still my stooped back brushed across the lintel as my shoulders barely managed to slide through its width. As with many things religious, what began as a necessity has morphed into a symbol. The door which was designed to keep out large animals such as camels in the Middle Ages (conquerors torn down and rebuilt the great sites many times since Constantine’s mother St. Helen first had them built in the fourth century) is now a sign of the humility of God daring to become as vulnerable as an infant. Shared by five different Christian communities, each quartered in their own section and praying in carefully choreographed intervals so as not to provoke a religious civil war, they have thankfully all agreed to a badly needed restoration, funded in large part by the governing Palestinian authority.
We arrived at mass through an ancient maze of stairs and other small doorways in the cave of St. Jerome, who translated the bible into Latin while living as a hermit for 30 years in Bethlehem. It struck me that such a holy a spot, where one of the founding great minds of the western church produced one of the most important books in history, were anywhere else, it would be due a massive shrine. Here it is a footnote, but a moving one, as Fr. Tim said mass just feet away from the birthplace of Christ.
From there we went around again to the original church and waited for a thankfully short time to climb down the stairs to venerate the birthplace of Jesus. A beautiful and startling happy icon of Mary with her son smiled at us as we prepared to descend to the birthplace of the Lord. All the holy places here are down old steps as each city and especially the churches have been razed and raised many times. A small fourteen pointed star represents the spot where the Lord was born. A few steps away, in another crowded cave, was the chapel of the manger. It makes a sense you might never have anticipated without being there. As Fr. Tim pointed out, it is not just where Jesus was born, but where God entered the world. The simply miraculous, a mother giving birth and the outlandishly, impossible, God becoming human, is the form of our salvation.
Jericho and the Jordan River
Perhaps only in the Holy Land can you experience two world “mosts” within half an hour. We visited the world’s oldest city, Jericho and the lowest place on earth at the head of the Dead Sea. Jericho’s green lushness made it an oasis in the desert for longer than there has been a historical record. It still teems and must have in Jesus’ time as well. Certainly, then a two thousand year old sycamore tree could have been the one chosen by the diminutive Zacchaeus. As they said, it is a sycamore and it is still around, so it could have been. Yet, the impressive sycamore still works better as a symbol anyway. For I am here still trying to see Jesus. What has been challenging due to time and space is now just a factor of time and the space lends a certain perspective which was all Zacchaeus was after anyway. The trick though remains, not to just see Jesus but to surrender to him as Zacchaeus does by giving half his belongings to the poor and promising to never defraud again as a tax collector. Salvation came to his house in the person of Jesus. It comes to our house by straining to see him in all that we do.
But the true blessing of the afternoon came at the Jordan River. Here too the story cannot be told without politics. Until a couple of years ago, the site most likely the one John used for his baptizing ministry was inaccessible as it formed the tense border with Jordan. But in a rare sign of Middle Eastern hope, Jordan and Israel have combined to make the baptismal spot open again.
If the Jordan River was mighty and wide when Michael rowed the boat ashore, it is not now. As the river completes its long journey from the north of the country and just before it empties into the Dead Sea, the river is narrow and muddy. It truly may have been wider before water diversion programs made green a barren land, but now it is barely more than ten yards wide.
The thin reeds and the bristled beauty made it easy to picture this being the wilderness haunts of John the Baptist. Judea, southern Israel is indeed tough country bringing added meaning to the mission of the Baptist to create a broad valley out of a rugged land. Jesus was attracted to this ministry and submitted, against his cousin John’s will, to baptism in the Jordan. This baptism did not make Jesus holier, it made the water holier. It is the water in which we have all been baptized. On a cloudy dank day, a thin light patch recalled the voice that came from heaven. “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” The water still speaks as we are baptized into the life of the man of peace and hope. The Jordan river is part of all of us.
As we renewed our baptismal vows, a male Jordanian soldier watched lazily from the baptismal site on his side of the river. (It is generally agreed that John baptized on the east bank but it is of little difference now.) Then as we left, we saw two young female Israeli army officers laughing while machine guns jauntily tangled by their side. We still have not listened to him.
Dinner with a Palestinian Christian Family
That night we went back to that other country, an Arab city next to Bethlehem and were entertained by a family of Palestinian Christians – a wise cracking couple making bad jokes about marriage, an engaging sixteen year old daughter, a 12 year old Boy who spent the entire dinner in his room playing video games and a cute, mischievous six year old son. (Sound familiar?) Palestinian Christians which once made up 10% of all Palestinian people now barely represent 1%.
We had a lovely jovial time. We talked politics because it is inescapable. Johnny said that his life is dictated by politics and more than just his restricted movement. He temporarily lost a customer for his kitchen modeling business when the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its intention to move its embassy because the fear of violence made him insecure. He explained that he does not watch politics, he lives it. We parted as friends but as we passed by the checkpoint again, it burned inside me that we could visit him, but he may never visit us.