"I remember wondering if Bethlehem had ever been the peaceful place described in Brooks’ Christmas carol."
“O little town of Bethlehem, / How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by.”
Our tour bus lumbered up to the first Bethlehem checkpoint on Epiphany, January 6. A group of heavily armed soldiers dragged on their cigarettes and joked with one another as we sat anxiously looking out our tinted windows. It seemed like an unreasonably long wait until an Israeli soldier entered the bus and asked the driver some questions. He examined official-looking papers and slowly scanned each of our faces. I felt uneasy. This had never happened to me on any of my trips from Quebec to Vermont as a kid. A heavy tension hung over the city, brought on by violent skirmishes between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters. This was not the “little town” described in Phillips Brooks’ Christmas carol.
Our bus inched its way through the city of Israeli and Palestinian residents. Soldiers waved us through checkpoints, and clusters of military personnel glanced up at us as we passed through major intersections. The driver parked the bus in a designated area, and Joseph, our tour guide, led us through the crowds to the Church of the Nativity. West Bank security forces lined the edges of Manger Square, scanning the crowd. A menorah and a star, both lit with white Christmas lights, adorned the side of the church. Suddenly, an Arabic call to prayer blasted from the metal speakers all around us, a jarring reminder that three of the world’s great religions were squeezed awkwardly into this small space.
In that moment, I pictured Joseph and Mary arriving here for the mandatory Roman census, elbowing their way through the crowds to register. A tense military presence would have surrounded them that day, and the strained political and religious tensions of the day could have easily sparked conflict.
The loud prayers continued as we waited in line to enter the ancient church. Visitors entered one at a time through the low stone doorway called the Door of Humility, designed, I learned, not to make pilgrims bow but to keep soldiers on horseback out. The church has, amazingly, survived centuries of war. I remember wondering if Bethlehem had ever been the peaceful place described in Brooks’ Christmas carol.
We continued to shuffle our way toward the stairs to the cave where Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus. Off to the side I saw areas closed for repairs due to recent gunfire inside the church. Other mysterious areas were marked “Authorized personnel only.”
Suddenly, I was cut off from my tour group by a procession headed for one of the restricted areas. The Patriarch of Constantinople, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, was in the middle of the procession. He wore black robes, a black hood and heavy, gold link chains that held three large gold crosses. With one hand he swung a gold censer, filling the air with bitter incense. In the other hand he held an ornate gold staff. A robed church official unlocked a large iron gate that guarded a darkened alcove. The procession made its way down the passageway, and the gate was locked behind them.
While my tour group moved on, I stood and pondered the stark contrast between what I’d just witnessed and the little family we were there to honour. There were no attendants fawning over them when they were turned away from the inn. No special entourage accompanied Joseph and Mary to the cave carved into the hillside. The biblical story doesn’t mention any other family members being present for the birth. Nothing adorned the dark enclosure or the roughly hewn feeding trough where the young mother laid her newborn.
I caught up with my group as they reached the narrow stairway leading down to the grotto of the nativity—a place of worship since the 2nd century. A silver 14-point star is embedded in the marble floor to mark the spot where, it is presumed, Mary placed Jesus into the manger. I watched pilgrims in front of me kneel and place a hand on the centre of the star. When my turn came, I did the same, while the words of Brooks’ carol played in my head:
“How silently, how silently / The wondrous Gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts / The blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming / But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still / The dear Christ enters in.”
Bethlehem—with its political and religious tensions, armed soldiers and jostling crowds—is far from the serene setting described by Phillips Brooks. But for me it continues to be a place of hope.
. Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” 1868.
Dr. Ron Powell is the Youth Ministry Institute director at Vanguard College in Edmonton, Alta.
This article appeared in the November/December issue of testimony, a bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. ©2016 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.