The city of Bethlehem is a contradiction for most Christians, while on the one hand it is the city of David, the birthplace of our Lord, yet on the other hand, in reality, it is a place of conflict, suppression, violence and too often despair. Even in the Church of the Nativity, the very place legend holds, the site where Christ was actually born, there is conflict and suspicion, not between Arabs and Jews, but between Christians.
To visit the site of Jesus’s birth, one must get to Nativity Square where the church sits opposite the Bethlehem Mosque. After struggling through the crowds of people, security, locals, not to mention, the occasional visit from a local religious leader (clear out!), you arrive at the door to the church, which is a small square door you must duck through in order to gain access to the sanctuary of the Church. Apparently there was a problem, back in the day, of people bringing animals into the church and the occasional occupying force storming the area. To deter both, the entrance of the church was changed to a small square so that only one person at a time could enter, and certainly discouraging animals and armies from entering.
So you made it into the church without being run over by crowds and you didn’t bump your head coming through the door, now you are in the sanctuary, finally. Your struggle is still not over. Renovations are taking place and the scaffolding, crowd and barriers forces everyone into the middle of the sanctuary where the line has already formed to go down into the crypt, under the main altar to see the site of the Saviors birth. There is not much solemnity as the line inches forward, chatting, selfies and pushing. The best way to describe going down to the place of Jesus’s birth, is similar to going down a drain, as a circular set of stairs leads to the spot of Jesus’s birth. It is only when descending these steps, is there any sense of solemnity. You are not allowed to dwell too long at the spot marking Jesus’s birth as the crowd and officials move you along. Coming up out of the crypt, it all seems so quick and hurried, not the spiritual moment most imagined.
Eyeballing everyone from their chairs and positions near the altar, behind the velvet ropes are the monks and religious charged with overseeing the church. The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Syriac orthodox church administrate the church, but not very peacefully or amiably. These different factions often brawl over territory and authority. At Christmas time in 2011, the Broom Battle took place where monks of different denominations fought with each other and security forces over some breach of jurisdiction. Today, as you visit the church the various monks eyeball you and each other warily, ready for even the slightest indiscretion.
Most of the time, I can only handle a few minutes in the church as the pushing crowd and the suspicious monks wear on me. I prefer to spend my time outside, sipping coffee in one of the restaurants surrounding the square. It is easy to make friends with the local Palestinians proprietors, as they try to sell you more food, souvenirs etc., still they always seem so interested in where you are from and why you are here. It is the goodness of the locals that remind me of Christ’s peace that eludes me in the Church of the Nativity.
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus and recall the song of the angels to the shepherds “Peace on Earth and good will to all,” lets pray for that peace for ourselves, our family, friends and perhaps for the divided and conflicted City of David, the city of Christ’s birth called Bethlehem.