As Advent begins and a cease-fire is brokered in Gaza, guest blogger Ruth Everhart, author of Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land, has Bethlehem on the brain. Our gauzy Christmas carols don't do justice to the realities of ongoing conflict in holy places. As she writes, "The next time you’re shopping and hear a song about Bethlehem, would you pray for them [the people there]?" --JKR
"Bethlehem on the Brain"
Maybe it’s because we waited breathlessly all last week as Egypt brokered a ceasefire in Gaza.
Maybe it’s because we officially turn the calendar from Thanksgiving to Advent this week.
More likely it’s because I heard “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as I shopped for sweat socks the other day at Kohls.
For whatever reason, I have Bethlehem on the brain.
Jesus’ birthplace is a tiny town in a complicated land, but ever since I visited there as a pilgrim, I feel a special pull toward Bethlehem:
O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Bethlehem is only five miles from Jerusalem, but the trip is significant. A traveler or pilgrim must pass into the West Bank through a checkpoint at the “Wall of Separation,” the barrier that separates Israel from Occupied Palestine. At this spot, poised between suburban Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the Wall stretches some 26 feet high. The cement barrier casts a long shadow: politically, economically, religiously.
As our tour bus rattled noisily down the streets of Bethlehem, they seemed dark, even in daytime. Despair tinged the air. The windows of businesses were covered with plywood and metal bars. Unemployed men stood on street corners.
We arrived at the “shepherd’s field” and walked down the rocky, sloping pasture, admiring the view of Jerusalem in the distance. We turned into a tuck of the hill and descended stone steps into a cave, trailing our fingers on the cold stone walls as pilgrims before us had done. And then, like those other pilgrims, we gathered to pray, surrounded by that cold but generative rock, rock that once saw the birth of our Lord.
Next we boarded the noisy tour bus to ride up the hill to the Church of the Nativity. A guide explained the conflict-ridden history of this famous place. We lit candles in the shrine built over the spot where the “original” Jesus manger once stood. We toured both naves of this twinned church. In one nave the Eucharist was held aloft, with people chanting; in the other a casket stood open, with people singing. I knelt to pray in each, feeling the presence of the Spirit.
Then the bus took us deeper into Palestine, to a refugee camp called Deheshieh (duh-HAY-shuh). We were introduced to our guide, who was named Jihad Ramadan. He was young and dark-haired and full of passion. Do you recoil against his name? I did, at first. But I listened to him. I let him interpret the reality my eyes took in: crumbling concrete walls, cramped alleyways, children in tattered clothing. My heart went out to the generations who have been born and raised in this “camp” which is anything but temporary.
Now the tour bus is a distant memory. But when I returned home, the sights and sounds of my pilgrimage entered my sermons. My congregation and I began to realize how many things had shifted for me. Over time, I was compelled to write a book about the pilgrimage experience.
I’m a pilgrim still. And every Advent, I have Bethlehem on the brain.
As Advent begins, my prayer is that Christians everywhere may open their eyes and ears to hear the plight of our Palestinian neighbors, whether Muslim, Christian or atheist. These people have no nationality and no rights.
The next time you’re shopping and hear a song about Bethlehem, would you pray for them?
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.