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.

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