One of my fellow pilgrims journeying to Bethlehem was Revd Dr Andrew Mayes. Andrew is now Course Director at St George’s College, Jerusalem and leads others in reflecting on the places and people in the Land of the Holy One. I have found Andrew’s recent meditation on Bethlehem both helpful and challenging and I’ve illustrated some of his comments with a few of the pictures I took:
At this time of year, hundreds come to Bethlehem to visit the Basilica of the Nativity. It is a fortress of a church, built by Justinian in the sixth century on Constantinian foundations. It is an awesome place. The pilgrims enter by a low door, requiring them to bend low in humility (though the original purpose of the low door was to prevent people riding the horses in!) One enters the mighty nave, with its stunning fourth century mosaics and soaring marble pillars. The church is built over the cave of the nativity, where a silver star marks the traditional birthplace of Christ. Pilgrims descend steep steps to enter the grotto, as if going into the depths of the earth, where they get on their knees to kiss the star and to touch the rock….
In Christianity the Holy Places developed after the Emperor Constantine's conversion in the forth century and the visit to his mother Helena to this land to identify the Holy Places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Splendid Byzantine churches marked these out as places of worship and pilgrimage, not least at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There is an unbroken tradition of prayer and pilgrimage at this site where it is Christmas everyday! The place of the Nativity speaks powerfully about the Incarnation, the Word made flesh (Jn 1:18). It speaks of what has been called the "scandal of particularity" – that is – for God to take on humanity and human nature for the sake of the whole world, there had to be one specific time and one concrete place where that took place. That place is Bethlehem, and here Christians ponder the wonder of God taking on human flesh and blood from Mary and being born our Brother in Jesus. We would indeed bend low….the holy God was laid in the dirt and dust here in Bethlehem's stable…now the grotto of a magnificent adorned church where the famous Christmas Midnight Mass will be celebrated.
But there is another side to Bethlehem and another answer to the question – what is holy? Where can we find God? Where should we be looking for God? Where is God to be encountered today? Bethlehem is hemmed in by the Wall, the Separation Barrier or Security Barrier which here is a concrete wall almost 30 feet in height. This has become a stranglehold and noose around the people of the West Bank. While pilgrims and tourists may pass Bethlehem's military checkpoint at the Wall fairly freely, for Bethlehemites it is often a humiliating ordeal to pass in or out, only possible with the right ID or with special permits, not easily obtained. Many in Bethlehem are separated from their families and relatives in nearby Jerusalem. They can only with immense difficulty worship in Jerusalem, whether at the Muslim Al Aqsa Mosque or Christian Church of the Resurrection.
The statistics tell their own story. In 1947 Bethlehem was 80% Christian and 20% Muslim. Today it is the other way around, due to increasing rates of emigration of Christians in recent years. They are leaving in their droves, in search of a better life, in the US and elsewhere. The local population of Bethlehem, both Christian and Muslim, are prisoners in their own homes, living in the captivity of the West Bank occupied territories….
Where do we find God? Where should we be looking for Christ? Can it be that we can encounter him, not only in holy rocks and grottos but also in the broken lives of the oppressed?……
The life of Jesus redefines holiness. The incarnation redefines the holy. Now we touch the holy God in his incarnate life in Jesus. We see the Holy, in Jesus, in the dust and dirt of a Bethlehem stable, in the simplicity and poverty of Galilee, in the heartache and longing of his tears on the Mount of Olives, in the pain and isolation of Calvary, in the mystery of Easter – there, in these 'Holy places' God's presence is to be discovered and welcomed……
Our God is a God of surprises. He waits to reveal himself in surprising locations and in surprising people. That, perhaps, is the message of Bethlehem. And the question of Bethlehem is for every time and place: What is holy? Where is God to be found?
Please pray for Bethlehem and all its inhabitants this Christmas time.
My account of the visit to Bethlehem can be found here.