Bethlehem, West Bank • There are painted angels, shepherds and kings above the small altar and a 14-point star on the marble floor below, but there’s no way that sheep, goats or cattle could fit inside the tiny cave that is believed by many Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus.
That’s because they would be squeezed out by the throngs of tourists eager to get a glimpse — or touch — of where centuries of Christians have believed the divine met humanity in the form of a baby.
The grotto is under Bethlehem’s large Church of the Nativity, which was built in the fourth century after Constantine’s mother, Helena, identified it as the right site for the miraculous moment.
The fortresslike basilica, which is administered by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic faiths, is the one of the world’s oldest continuously operating churches. It has hosted standing room-only Masses and services throughout the season of Advent, especially on Christmas Eve, some lasting until midnight.
“Last year, I left the Nativity church at 3 a.m. after multiple Masses,” says Kevin Vollrath, manager of Middle East partnerships at Churches for Middle East Peace, who lives near Bethlehem, “and the church was still packed with pilgrims waiting to descend to Jesus’ believed birthplace.”
No, it isn’t the field or the “little town” captured in carols or in global Nativity sets. It is an overcrowded West Bank city in the occupied territories of Palestine, tarnished with trash, behind a concrete wall and checkpoint, and crawling with marketers, selling their Christian angels, olive wood Nativities and crosses.
So why do so many believers flock to the place in search of Christ’s origin?
Because, many say, they feel they can find it.
If pilgrims experience a bit of disparity between what they hoped to see and the built-up modern cities of Bethlehem or Nazareth, perhaps it can be “an invitation of sorts,” says Mark Ellison, who teaches ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, to think more deeply and profoundly — like Christian disciples.
Jesus’ first followers “experienced something like that, too,” Ellison says. “They had high hopes for what the Messiah would look like and what he would do. When Jesus made it clear to his disciples that he wasn’t the Messiah of popular expectation, Peter famously balked. It took all the disciples some time to adjust. Later, after the resurrection, they refined their understanding and came to see Jesus as more wonderful than they’d imagined. They found new meaning in the line from Isaiah 53, ‘He had no beauty that we should desire him.’”
When Ellison first visited Bethlehem, he wanted to glimpse “the manger, the straw, the ox and lamb and donkey and shepherds, in a cozy, quaint little village,” he says, “but what I saw was a busy modern suburb with a jumble of buildings and parts of buildings constructed over centuries, their relationships baffling, layer upon layer of tradition, and multiple Christian denominations sharing religious sites, sometimes in strife, other times in joyous cacophony or harmony.”
That was, he says, “kind of revelatory.”
Room in homes and hearts
Utahn Jody England Hansen visited Israel in March, and learned from her Catholic guide that Mary and Joseph would have come to Bethlehem expecting to stay with family.
“But there is local lore that says the relatives of Mary and Joseph who owned the inn, or hospitality house, did not approve of this marriage of Joseph to a woman who was already pregnant,” Hansen writes in a recent Exponent II blog post. “It wasn’t so much there was no room in the inn; it was that there was no room in their hearts for anyone who did not meet their standards of propriety.”
Their disapproval, however, did not stop Jesus from coming into the world, Hansen explains. “The family members are the ones who missed out. Our guide asked us to have room in our hearts and minds for God to be born and live among us, even and especially in ways we would never expect, for God will come somehow. We can either choose to be a part of it, or miss out on it because we have no room.”
Finding the door to holiness and humility
Sadly, many visitors’ first view of Bethlehem is the concrete wall that separates it from modern Jerusalem.
Graffiti on the barrier includes “I was an angel and they tear-gased me,” Vollrath says. “I think there is even an image of the holy family getting stopped at the checkpoint.”
Lots of Palestinians identify with Jesus as a refugee, he says, and reflect on the challenges he and his family “would have faced if they were around today, going from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Gaza and Egypt.”
One cannot look at the enormous security wall “without being a bit shaken by this truly obscene thing that slithers over the hills, built to separate not only the land but also a people,” Salt Lake City attorney Jim McConkie writes, with wife Judith, in a forthcoming volume titled “From Bethlehem to the Garden Tomb: A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.” “...It is a gray and ghastly symbol of fear and hate…the opposite of ‘peace on earth.’”
Even so, McConkie finds himself moved by — of all things — the entrance to the Church of the Nativity.
“It is an ungainly thing that still shows how the original arch was closed in with uneven stones and a heavy lintel and posts,” McConkie writes, “to prevent invading horsemen from literally riding into the church to steal the sacramental objects from the sanctuary.”
The entrance is dubbed “the Door of Humility” because millions of visitors must bend over to step down into the darkness, one at a time, through an opening that is barely 4 feet high and 2 feet wide.
“On the other side we are each met with an unadorned space that asks us each to pause and consider where we are and what happened here,” McConkie writes. “I must confess that here the rest of profane contemporary Bethlehem wanes. Each time I bow to step through…I am chastened by the comprehension that the markers of the Messiah’s coming that the authors of the Gospels wrote for me to discover were realized literally beneath this place.”
‘Ground zero for a new birth’
On an open hillside north of Bethlehem, a little west of the traditional Shepherds’ Field site, there is a patch of rocks, olive trees and bushes.
“Latter-day Saint groups have been going there since the 1970s,” says Eric Huntsman, academic director of BYU’s Jerusalem Center. “In fact, we unofficially call it the ‘Latter-day Saint Shepherds Field.’”
Because it is an open hillside and not developed, “it is easier to imagine what it must have been like for the shepherds that first Christmas Eve,” says Huntsman, who has developed Advent practices for Latter-day Saints. “It also lets us look up toward Bethlehem on the hilltop opposite as we read the Christmas story and sing Christmas carols.”
It is the future, not the past, says DeAnn Sadleir, that attracts pilgrims to the sites and story of the newborn Jesus.
These holy sites “draw Christians as a presence of a positive future, like Mary in Bethlehem,” says Sadleir, a guide who has led several Latter-day Saint tours in the Holy Land. Mary “kept going; therefore I can keep going. Radiance is birthed in the dark.”
Like Huntsman, Sadleir prefers the Shepherds’ Field, over the church.
Christmas lights illuminating the night sky “have such an impact, saying in essence, don’t fear. Anything good comes from darkness, and there will be a place of new radiance,” she says. “There is a power of new beginning in the dark, quiet fields of Bethlehem.”
The ancient city represents “ground zero for a new birth,” Sadleir says, “a universal desire we all seek.”
All have an image of their own “Christ,” she says, and they can find how “he was born in us” anywhere — including in downtown Bethlehem.
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