“I think we in the West have often sanitised, romanticised and tamed Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus through our nativity sets and carols,” writes Good Samaritan Sister Marella Rebgetz.
BY Marella Rebgetz SGS
Tantur Ecumenical Institute is situated on a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem. I arrived here two months ago in the evening, to begin a three-month sabbatical. From the verandah of the refectory you can see Bethlehem a little more than a kilometre away. I was immediately, and continue to be, entranced by the lights of Bethlehem in the soft darkness, which whisper promises of an eternity born into history and geography, and a story of a Hope that is real.
However, waking the next morning to see Bethlehem in the unforgiving light of a hot, cloudless day began the harsh process of confronting my romantic image of Bethlehem and, entwined through it, my understanding of the Christmas blessings of peace, hope and love.
I quickly realised that my unreflected-upon image of Bethlehem was that of my childhood, shaped by carols such as “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and idyllic pictures on Christmas cards. I had unconsciously envisioned Bethlehem as a small, picturesque village in a fairly ‘soft’ rural setting, with quaint houses and a number of ‘pubs’ where travellers could stay. My image was probably more akin to postcards of rural villages in England with cattle ‘softly lowing’, but framed with swaying date palms, the occasional gentleman dressed in colourful robes riding a camel, and a night sky painted with stars and the odd angel.
Though it may have been a small town of less than a thousand people at the time of Jesus’ birth, today Bethlehem has a population of about 27,000 people, most of whom have moved into the area since the State of Israel came into existence in 1948. As a result, it’s a sprawling township of cheap, low-rise, flat-roofed, grey concrete apartment blocks.
While most of the towns in Israel that date back to antiquity have at their heart a vibrant market, the old market area of Bethlehem lacks any distinctive character. Even those touting their goods do so without notable enthusiasm or persistence. The suburban streets are strewn with rubbish. Water is limited and unreliable, so there are almost no gardens, apart from the occasional pot of flowers on a balcony. Even olive trees, scrawny with their dull-coloured leaves, are scarce, and the surrounding land is stony, hilly and arid. There is a miasma of poor-ness (though I wouldn’t describe it as poverty) hanging over the town.
The psalmists sang of the beauty of Jerusalem. During Jesus’ era Jerusalem was resplendent with Roman-era colonnades, palaces, and of course the Temple Mount; the Crusaders decorated Jerusalem with Romanesque churches and made it the seat of their Kingdom. To this day, the Old City of Jerusalem has a charm that captivates. However Bethlehem, while so close to Jerusalem that today their respective urban sprawls almost touch, is to me a town without apparent physical beauty, colour, grace or soul – a physically unwelcoming town.
Yet it was in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, that Jesus was born. Bethlehem was a poor town, where many people lived in modified caves. The markets were likely to have been small, and the town without beauty. The land would have been parched and the shepherds would have struggled to find grass to feed their small flocks of sheep. I imagine the town stank of sheep, donkeys, camels, inadequate sewerage and unwashed bodies. That in many ways Bethlehem is still such a town is, for me, a physical reminder that God was, is, and always will be, born in oppression and poverty, in dryness and ugliness, and in ordinary boringness.
Bethlehem today is also a town under occupation. An eight-metre high wall physically separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem. It casts an almost corporeal shadow over the town so that even for a visitor wandering the streets, it is impossible to forget the occupation.
The wall snakes across Palestinian land so that many farmers no longer have access to their olive groves, and land available for the expansion of townships is limited. At the checkpoints, manned by young Israeli soldiers brandishing guns, the State of Israel determines who and what enters and leaves the West Bank. Israel even controls water and sewerage services in Bethlehem.
Yet from within Bethlehem, you can clearly see the neat rows of attractive-looking red-roofed houses of the Israeli “settlements” built on Palestinian land within the West Bank. The UN deems these illegal, but the presence of cranes shows that these settlements are still growing. Apparently there are about 600,000 Israelis living in settlements (or “neighbourhoods”, as the Israelis call them) throughout the West Bank.
Within the larger Bethlehem precinct are a number of Palestinian refugee camps which have the appearance of overcrowded suburbs built without any consideration for building regulations or town planning. Palestinians either fled, or were physically relocated, to these camps when Israel captured the West Bank. From the refectory in Tantur we regularly hear the sirens of the Israeli police and tear-gas being fired into these camps. The refugee camps of Bethlehem almost sweat oppression and resentment.
When Jesus was born, Bethlehem was also a town under occupation. While there was no wall to prevent the wise men from the East entering the town, the people living there were governed by a foreign power. Where there are now Israeli soldiers, there would have been Roman guards, likely conducting acts of harassment and destruction – and worse, the countryside obviously seething with resentment.
I think we in the West have often sanitised, romanticised and tamed Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus through our nativity sets and carols. Where are the children playing, crying and screaming in the streets? Where are the men and women jostling and haggling in the markets? The midwives? The soldiers? The animal and human dung? How do we capture the sounds and smells?
In our peaceful cribs of Bethlehem, we also don’t tell the story given in Matthew 2:16, of Herod killing the children in and around Bethlehem who were under the age of two years. Housed within the Church of the Nativity, the same Church where pilgrims come to venerate the spot where Jesus was believed to have been born, are a collection of bones said to be the bones of these children. At Bethlehem University, the walls of the Chapel are painted with murals depicting martyred children from around the world who have been canonised – a reminder that, tragically, the Massacre of the Innocents was not just a one-off event, and that Rachel still weeps for her children to this day.
My experience is that Bethlehem is not an easy city for a pilgrim to spend extended time in. Despite the signs proclaiming that this is the birthplace of the “Prince of Peace”, hope is not a star shining brightly over the city. Even though this land has been sacramentalised in a unique way through the physical Incarnation of the Divine, this is not a sacrament that can be found in a tabernacle and adored on bended knees. As T.S. Eliot wrote in “Journey of the Magi”:
“And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…”