Safe to say, it was the strangest Christmas of our lives. I’m still in disbelief that Christmas happened at all, actually. The irony, of course, was that we were in the very spot of Jesus’ birth, so you’d think that the authenticity would add to the celebratory atmosphere. Think again.
I don’t mean to complain. It’s just that we worked so hard to get there. I thought Bethlehem would be the highlight of the trip. Granted, it still might have been, if only we had received trustworthy help earlier on. The way to do Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, as we lamentably found out after the fact, is to sign up with a group a head of time—a group with its own bus, with its own service, its own system. Doing it solo, as we did, failed miserably.
Some background: The West Bank is broken up into different territories governed and protected by either the Israelis or the Palestinians. Bethlehem currently belongs to the Palestinians, meaning the land sits behind an enormous barbed wired wall and is guarded by countless numbers of armed soldiers. Given this political situation, going to Bethlehem as a tourist seems more than slightly daunting. The Frommers Guide didn’t even include any West Bank Cities in the book. In reality, there likely would be little danger to tourists, and all it means is taking out your passport another time and pretending like the guns don’t bother you. But on Christmas Eve there were even more guns than usual. And the picture I had in my head of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, well, had no guns, to say the least.
Our troubles began when the American Express Concierge Service told us about Protestant services in the Shepherd’s Fields on Christmas Eve outside Bethlehem. That sounded too cool to pass up. What authenticity to experience! I now wish we had given up when American Express sent us info on churches in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. But, alas, we looked past this and pushed forward. We called tourism offices. We called churches. We called the YMCA. No one seemed to know what we were talking about (even though all of these places did, in fact, lead their own groups). Few people even seemed to take an interest in our question. It was not until Christmas Eve when we finally reached the Christian Tourist Office in Jerusalem that we found out these services did in fact exist but we were too late to sign up for them. Here was another place we should have given up, and didn’t. We asked the lady there if there were protestant services in English in Bethlehem for which we could just show up and get a seat. She said there was: St. George’s Church, right next to the Church of the Nativity, had a service at 11:00pm. Awesome, I thought. Finally, a breakthrough: we would be able to go to Bethlehem after all. More than this, the Ministry of Tourism had free buses that shuttled people across the border.
Oh Fate, how fickle you are.
We waited 45 minutes for this free bus. Fortunately there were other people waiting in that dark parking lot so we knew we weren’t in the wrong place. I wish we had been. Finally it came, we boarded, and five minutes later we were at the Bethlehem wall—huge, concrete, and imposing. Surly men with grimaces and guns were there to greet us. The bus let us off on the side of a busy roundabout and it was at this point I was happy I had bought a map earlier that day. The Church of the Nativity turned out to be a 20 minute walk away up a series of hills and past hundreds of loitering young men who stared at us as we past by. Some of them yelled out, “Maydee Chreestmas!” which seemed festive on the one hand, though I couldn’t help but feel that they probably had no idea what that meant. As we walked, I remembered that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life when George is running through Bedford Falls when it had transformed into a Godless place with flashing neon lights above the gambling houses and Girls Girls Girls Dance halls and drinking in the streets. I felt Bethlehem had taken a similar turn as Bedford Falls. All was dark except for the giant plastic Santa Claus statues lighted up outside the tourist shops where older Palestinian men stood waiting for sucker customers. The buildings were worn and shoddy. There was barbed wire everywhere. There were so few women. Up and up we went to get to the Church of the Nativity in the center of town where we had heard there would be a projection of the service shown on screens outside the building for the people who couldn’t fit inside. When we finally made it past the throngs of people and armed police, we discovered not a peaceful church service but a raucous rock concert with a loud band singing in Arabic. The place was packed and surrounded by machine guns. We circled the square looking for St. George’s church. We vaguely saw a sign for St George through the hoards of people and we headed toward it. After great difficulty, we made it to that corner, where we made the unfortunate discovery that St. Georges was a restaurant, not a church. A protestant service in English…a hope that faded very quickly.
We continued circling around the crowd, dodging between smoky exhales and trying hard to stay together. We moved over towards the church of the Nativity to see if there was any hope of getting in, if not to stay for the service, then just to look at the place. But by the time we got over there, we found ourselves face to face with machine guns as policemen pushed the crowd back into itself trying to make room for cars that needed to pass through. I stood there with no where to go, and my younger siblings there beside me, all three of us unable to tear our eyes away from the weapons. Merry Christmas indeed.
It was time to give up. Actually, that time came long before, but this was the moment we chose to finally turn around. We went back to where the bus had dropped us off. Along the walk I tried to make light of the situation, and reworded the tune to Oh Little Town of Bethlehem to make it go something like this:
Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, beneath your bright neon lights,
In darkened streets, cops pack big heat,
And tourists run in fright.
Folks were only slightly amused. I prayed, wondering if we had missed God’s signs not to come. I knew immediately upon having this thought that it is futile to think of those what ifs. I felt God telling me, no need to dwell upon what could have been if only.
We made it back to the drop off point by the busy traffic circle. There we waited watching the stampede of cars and buses honk their way through the mass. We all wondered whether the bus would return at all.
As we sat there, a thought occurred to me, a thought that changed everything. I wondered at that moment if any one in history had ever seen Bethlehem lie still. Was it really a deep and dreamless sleep with silent stars going by, the night that Christ was born? I doubt it. There was no room at the inn. That means the place was crowded with all the folks returning home for the Roman census, just as Joseph was doing with his bride. Joseph and Mary faced rejection and great discomfort in Bethlehem, though indubitably much worse than the upset we experienced. They had no where to go, no friendly face to care for them. Talk about a moment for going into labor. Though I have no personal experience with this as of yet, in my understanding, nothing about childbirth is terribly peaceful. The true Christmas was probably truly chaotic. Perhaps we have developed so great of a misrepresentation of that glorious night that we completely forget the desolate and humble circumstances by which Christ made his introduction to the world. For goodness sake, Mary had no choice but to lay her newborn in a feeding trough for lack of a better, and cleaner, place to put him. I feel this realness, the grittiness, of the first Christmas is crucial to remember, for it is precisely his humble origins that magnify the miracle of Christ’s immaculate human existence. For after all, which is the more glorious: a king constantly dwelling in comfort, or a king emerging from poverty? Strangely enough our wretched trip to Bethlehem helped me see this. We came to share in some of Christ’s experiences, and that may be precisely what we got through Bethlehem’s mayhem. It is possible that, in a small way, our excursion on Christmas Eve might be a more authentic Christmas experience than we might have realized. God’s funny like that sometimes.