Manger Square, the Church of Nativity and the Manger

Manger square celebrationsEntrance to Jesus' mangerBirthplace 1Hotels around Shepherds Field

There is only one Manger Square, and that is in Bethlehem, and its centerpiece is the Church of the Nativity. In Rome, every Christmas, there is a procession in Saint Peter’s Basilica, in which a statue of the baby Jesus is carried and placed in a manger. Many churches around the world will display different designs of mangers. Some Christian homes too will not be out-performed in the display of mangers and  distinctive decorations.

The display of figures in a manger goes back to 1223 when Francis of Assisi first introduced the practice. Nevertheless, from as early as the fourth century it was customary to paint nativity scenes on walls. For most Christians around the world Christmas is marked by some form of a nativity scene, with a manger and some figures and some form of lighting – candle light or some other form of Christmas lighting.

Manger Square is crowded during Christmas. Furthermore, one must have a ticket for the Christmas celebrations.

There is one manger and one Church of the Nativity in the jurisdiction of Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches. Christmas celebration, therefore, is in different rites, different sanctuaries and for most pilgrims, not in the grotto where Jesus was born.

My first experience in that grotto was transformational. It was not during Christmas with all the crowds. Sure, there are tourists in Manger Square any time of the year, but during Christmas there are thousands and thousands.

On that first visit I was immediately drawn to meditate on humility as I came to the entrance into the church. Because of the low entrance one enters the church bended. The most appropriate posture would be to enter kneeling.

Once inside a short stairway leads down to the grotto. It is bare, nothing like our mangers and nativity scenes of Christmas in the west. Furthermore, the only illumination there is candle light, nothing fancy. As a result of candles burning in there for centuries, the walls are dark.

As I lit a candle I was reminded that the child who was born in that grotto brings light into my life and into the world. The grotto also reminded me not only of the simplicity and humility of Jesus’ humanity, but also that there was no room for him in the inns around. He was poor, a stranger and homeless. Furthermore, Joseph and Mary found themselves in that situation because of an imperial decree.

Bethlehem during Christmas

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Ethiopian PatriarchChristmas in Bethlehem

At least nineteen states in the U.S have cities or towns named Bethlehem. They all derive the name from the biblical town – the city of David and birthplace of Jesus.

The biblical city stands today, and only a few years ago its population was almost 50/50 Christian/Muslim. Sadly, today, as a result of the political turmoil in the region in general, only a small minority indigenous Christian population remains there.

I have sometimes wondered how Christmas is observed in the 19 Bethlehems (may be more) in the U.S and elsewhere in the world for that matter. (There is one too in South Africa, in eastern Free State province). One would imagine Christmas in these special towns would be special in some ways different from the rest of the world. I am yet to experience Christians in Bethlehem, Ohio, or the more well-known one in Pennsylvania.

Nevertheless, the real Bethlehem is only five miles (eight kilometers) south of Jerusalem and since I grew up with a hobby for walking – I got that from my father who often made the trip of 15 miles from our village to town on foot – I walked to Bethlehem several times. Several times too I took the bus, but it was always enjoyable walking from Jerusalem, through Talpiot and taking a short-cut through a previous no man’s enclave controlled by the United Nations and on to Bethlehem.

No; I did not walk or take the bus to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve or Christians Day for two reasons. One, Christmas comes in winter and most of the time there was “heavy” snow in Jerusalem –  and not so heavy in Bethlehem. Born and raised on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, I had seen snow on the summit but had never walked on it.

Think for a moment about the shepherds in Shepherds Field near Beit Sahour, “keeping watch over their flocks at night when an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:8-9).

A visit to the Sanctuary of the Shepherds Field and Grotto gave me new insights into the Nativity story. The limestone caves in Shepherds Field gave me a picture of shepherds guarding their flocks at night, different from that of my tropical African background of shepherds in sprawling grasslands. I can understand better too, Jesus’ message about the shepherd and the sheep in John 10. Shepherds stood at the mouth of the cave – so to speak – and guarded the sheep against predators and intruders.

The second reason I did not go to Bethlehem during Christmas was because of trends that are similar to western Christianity’s commercialization of Christmas. Many who travel thousands of miles to Bethlehem for Christmas need to find ways of experiencing the spirituality of their intended pilgrimages otherwise they become frustrated.

On Christmas Eve, the Latin Patriarch leads a procession of worshipers from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. These are indigenous Palestinian Christians and foreigners resident in the Holy Land, plus thousands of tourists and pilgrims from around the world. Spirituality and commerce fuse and one has to disentangle them in order to experience one’s purposes for the trip.

The procession itself is an experience not to be missed. The other Patriarchs – Greek and Ethiopian – lead their Christmas processions in January according to the Gregorian calendar. In Jerusalem, the Patriarchs are the highest Christian clerics and Christmas provides the best chance to see them in pageantry. But then, according to Luke 2:7 Mary “gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in clothes and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn”.

I wanted to experience that moment; so I made my trips to Bethlehem and to the Shepherds Field when there were no tourists and merchants. But the two groups are ever present, more so during Christmas. I wanted to experience the manger away from the inns.

Remembering Nelson Mandela

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The picture is still very vivid in my mind. I was in New Haven, Connecticut, watching that piece of history unfold on television that morning of February 11, 1990 when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, a free man after 27 years. I saw him as he walked, hand in hand with his then wife, Winnie Mandela. I saw the crowd that gathered to receive him.

I cry very easily, and I was crying then. I am sure there were many tears streaming down many faces in that crowd. I also remember the speech he gave at the rally in Cape Town on that day. He said, “Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. We call on our people to seize this moment so that the process towards democracy is rapid and uninterrupted. We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts”.

(That voice had never been heard in the past 27 years, nor had his picture been seen – both had been forbidden by the oppressors hoping to wipe out his memory from the face of the earth).

Watching all that on television in New Haven, I wished I was in Cape Town, or anywhere closer than Connecticut – anywhere on African soil. I was choking with emotion.

I grew up in Tanzania during the years of struggle against colonialism and after independence, perhaps no African country pushed for the dismantling of colonialism throughout the continent more than Tanzania. But, every form of colonialism paled in comparison to apartheid. The struggle in South Africa became our struggle in Tanzania – after all, the African National Congress (ANC) was based in Dar-es-Salaam.

When I arrived in New Haven, Nelson Mandela was still in prison though F.W  de Klerk had announced plans to set him free. There was heated debate on the international scene concerning the sanctions that had been imposed on the apartheid regime by the United Nations. Some in the U.S. Congress too were pushing for lifting the sanctions on the grounds of de Klerk’s promise.

South Africa, along with most African nations were opposed to lifting of sanctions until tangible actions were seen. I joined the debate publicly when I wrote an article in the New Haven Register against lifting sanctions. While the main argument was that sanctions were hurting the Black people of South Africa rather than the apartheid regime, my argument in the paper was that people who did not own any material possessions had nothing to lose with the sanctions.

Like millions of world citizens I watched South Africa emerge from apartheid to a multi-racial democracy under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. We witnessed a society that was able to avoid the inevitable cycle of retribution and revenge and chose forgiveness and reconciliation under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

To me, that fact is a miracle. It is the highest ideal of humanity. To me, Nelson Mandela was proof that there is decency in human beings even in the darkest moments.

Expectant Waiting

Expectant Waiting

I like the description we give to the season of Advent: Expectant Waiting.  For me, Advent is the best season of the church calendar, and it does bring me childhood memories. (My childhood was not turbulent and I am aware that some people would rather not be reminded of their childhood). Nevertheless, the innocence of childhood provides a spiritual compass for our life of faith.

Try to look at the season in the eyes of children. Granted; the whole holiday season is so commercialized (for adults) that much of its spirituality has been lost. Children, nevertheless, truly experience the season as expectant waiting. The Christmas trees and decorations – they all point to one thing: Gifts to be unwrapped one morning in the not too long future. The waiting is worthwhile and there is certainty of that being waited for.

That is my childhood memory of Advent. It was the time we got new clothes – to be unveiled on Christmas day. We did not have Christmas trees or gifts covered in special wrappings. But whatever we got for Christmas could not be worn before that day. We knew what we had, but we waited expectantly for that day.

The waiting was often long – as it usually is, with children. But there was certainty of the end of the waiting. During the waiting period, we checked on what we had, often; sometimes several times a day, just to make sure that everything was still there. We even tried them on, to make sure they still fit. But we had to wait for Christmas day to step out in our new clothes.

Despite the commercialized version of the season as we have it now, we can still recapture its spirituality by cherishing the reality of Jesus Christ in our lives. With him we are guaranteed true fulfillment and enjoyment of everything we expect and hope for in life. Often, the commercialization leads to misery and exhaustion. The childlike spirituality, on the other hand, is the bliss of the season.