by Mercy Aiken
I am a volunteer at Bethlehem Bible College and sometimes I still find it hard to believe that I am living in this iconic “little town.” It was in Bethlehem’s hills, of course, where David composed his first Psalms; it was here that he was anointed by Samuel. It was here that Ruth gleaned in the golden fields of Boaz. And it was here—most famously—that the infant-God’s first exhaled cry pierced the air; where He was swaddled and sung to sleep in a feeding trough.
Bethlehem is home to the oldest continual-use Christian church in the world; a building whose heavy stones are worn and polished from 1,500 years of kneeling saint and sinner. I can stroll down the street to visit the cave that is beneath this church any time I want; a thought that tantalizes as much as it tends to disappoint. I want to sit in flickering candlelight and contemplate Mary struggling in labor here amidst the animals. I want think of the generations that have come to worship in this little grotto since then. Usually, that is impossible because it is almost always crowded with toursts being herded through under the impatient eye of the grotto’s guard.
Once I sang here with an African pilgrim; our mutual love of Jesus making us not strangers, but sisters. We walked out of the grotto teary-eyed, hand in hand, under the glare and the Shhhhhhhh of the man with the keys.
Like the rest of this land, Bethlehem is steeped in mystery, liturgy, history, tragedy, absurdity, irony. To enter Bethlehem is to set foot inside a living museum. It is to breathe the dank air of the caves where Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate and thus charted the course of the Western World. It is to run your fingers across the crosses carved by Crusaders in the marble columns of the church. It is to mingle with men in brown Franciscan robes, nuns in the white and blue garments of the Missionaries of Charity, and the various Orthodox denominations in their ornate caps and capes. It is to walk the street with ladies in Hijabs, men in traditional Arab Keffiyehs and Eastern European pilgrims with shawls over their heads. It is to wonder for a brief moment, what century exactly, you are living in.
Bethlehem is the pale stones of Star Street, where Christians have lived for over a thousand years; now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a graffitti-covered separation wall that surrounds the city on three sides. It is crowded refugee camps where kids play with marbles in narrow streets. (There are few green spaces left in this densely populated municipality; a mingling of three towns, three refugee camps and several large and growing Israeli settlements and checkpoints).
Bethlehem is the sweet smoke of the hookah and incense, the fragrance of bees-wax candles and strong Arabic coffee mingled with an occasional waft of tear gas, skunk water or the dark black smoke of tires burning in the street. It is uprooted olive trees whose roots once clung to the soil through the birth of modern Israel and the Palestinian Nakba; through the British Mandate; through the Ottoman Empire and even beyond. Some of these olive trees were saplings in the days of the Crusaders. And some of them were old even then.
Bethlehem is populated with animated shopkeepers and tired old women; with scholars and stone-throwers; saints and stylish young mothers. It is populated with those who will invite you right off the street into their tiny home; perhaps they will serve you a feast on a small coffee table. To live in Bethlehem is to engage in frequent discussion about what it means to love one’s neighbors and enemies. You will often be asked where you are from; everyone here has relatives in Europe, the United States, Chile, Lebanon, Australia, Jordan, and the other side of the Wall. Most of all, Bethlehem is filled with a people who yearn to live in dignity, as their great-grandfathers did, under the shade of their olive and lemon groves.
Here in the birthplace of Christianity, Bethlehem is the sound of the worship of its saints:
“People may forget us, but Jesus is faithful. In hardship they leave us but Jesus is a helper…His beauty is outstanding, outstanding, more beautiful than all mankind. The light of His face is shining, shining, full of love and sincerity. I have never found anyone like my beloved Jesus, I have looked everywhere…”
The college where I work is a microcosm of Bethlehem’s ancient Christian community: a medley of Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal and other believers worshipping together in a way that I always longed to see in the United States. The community is so small (and shrinking) here, it cannot afford to be otherwise, though sadly, factions do exist. Nevertheless, it is a small taste of heaven to see this level of Christian unity in the midst of such denominational diversity. And no doubt, I will look back on Bethlehem as the place where I fell in love with liturgy for the first time in my life: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning is now, and will be forever. Amen. Hallelujah.”
The patron saint of this devout little town is Saint George, the famous dragon-slayer whose mother was Palestinian and who lived for a time near Bethlehem. Today he is revered by Christians and Muslims alike; the image of dragon beneath his feet is an apt prophetic picture of the millennia of struggles here— “Rachel weeping for her children”—and the promised victory that has been accomplished and is yet to come.
“Don’t come to the Holy Land if you are not willing to talk about religion and politics,” said a wise friend during my first week at BBC. “They permeate everything here. Some tourists just put on rosy glasses, but this place demands more. A visit here should compel us to deeply examine what we believe and the consequences of our beliefs.”
Here is where at least two different ideas of what is called “prophetic” face each other uneasily. One face focuses primarily on various eschatological interpretations of events foretold; an end-times chart in his hand. The other face focuses primarily on God’s heart for justice, mercy and speaking truth to power; a measuring rod in his hand. These faces must come into agreement, but how? Must one of them change the expression of its face? If so, which one? These questions are not mere philosophy in Bethlehem, but matters of life and death.
My soul is being stretched here, but I wanted that. It is part of the reason I came. I wanted to meet Saint George in his own town–that brave Dragon-slayer—He who stood upon the crushed the head of the serpent. (I can feel Him rising).
Bethlehem is a battle-scarred old mother and I have come to sit at her feet. She is my relative and I will lay my head on her knees. I will caress her gnarled hands and we will wait on Him together—Bethlehem’s King—until our youth is renewed as the eagle. Until Rachel stops weeping for her children, and every child is gathered home into her loving arms. Until His kingdom comes and His will is done here as it is in Heaven.
For the Mystery we confess is that Christ was born here,and
Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again.
I came to Bethlehem because I wanted to see His face in the very center of Christianity; a place that in some ways now sits “outside the camp.” And yet, in these dark streets, the light still shineth. Jesus, You are walking in the West Bank too. I see Your footprints everywhere, fresh and bright at this morning’s sunlight.
Come, visit Bethlehem. Visit BBC. Come and see for yourself!