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Published: January 7th 2006
Going to Bethlehem for Christmas has been one of my goals for some time now. And after having made it to Jerusalem on December 23rd, that goal was now tantalizingly within reach...
In search of a procession
I had hoped to join an official procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (according to my guidebook, one happened every year on December 24th). Due to the Israeli checkpoint and other problems though, the only kind of procession happening this year, according to the helpful and eminently patient Sister at the Christian Information Centre, was leaving at midnight from the Austrian Hospice. In other words, with a bunch of German-speaking people. My German isn't that great, so I wandered over to the Church of the Sepulchre to ponder my next move.
The Church of the Sepulchre is the traditional site where Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose again. It is a jumble of different architectural styles; every Christian sect seems to have staked out a place in the church with its own chapel - Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic, and so on. When I arrived there, Greek Orthodox priests were conducting a service. I overheard someone say "there will be a procession afterwards" and I thought maybe they're going to Bethlehem?
I waited outside with a crowd of other people. Suddenly the bells in the tower rang, people clapped, and a Greek Orthodox procession exited the church. I joined them. We wound through the Old City's narrow streets, and then into a building, up a stairway, and into a reception hall. Not exactly Bethlehem. No one paid any attention to me, but I clearly didn't belong, so I gracefully extricated myself from the crowd and left.
The weather was chilly, but it wasn't raining (they were predicting rain later in the day), so I decided to get a true "pilgrim experience" and walk to Bethlehem on my own. The wind became increasingly stronger, and as I walked through the seemingly deserted Jewish neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem (it was the Jewish Sabbath), I began to wonder if I was crazy as huge tour buses packed with tourists roared by on their way to Bethlehem in warm comfort. But I always prefer to walk if possible -- I get a much better feel for a place that way. And after an hour and a half of walking, the Israeli checkpoint at the edge of Bethlehem finally came into view.
The pedestrian path to the checkpoint was not clearly marked, and I was wary of straying into some area where I shouldn't, since the area was militarized to the hilt. Eventually I found my way to a narrow passageway, through metal barriers, and past a very bored looking soldier who couldn't have been older than 20. At the sight of my American passport he waved me on through. I can only imagine what a Palestinian might have to go through to get from one side to the other.
The separation wall, recently completed in this area, loomed high above. Built by Israel in an attempt to thwart Palestinian militant attacks, it is a concrete monstrosity about 25 feet high, with watchtowers spaced at intervals along its length. You get the feeling you are entering an armed camp -- or a prison. A huge banner on one side of the wall proclaimed "Peace be with you" in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. How Orwellian can you get? It was 1984
all over again where "War is Peace." The juxtaposition of the wall with the town of Bethlehem, a place revered the world over as the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, could not have been more stark. (For more information on the wall, see this link
on the BBC website.)
To make another literary reference (sorry, I can't help it), I thought immediately of Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall" as I walked through the gate in the wall to the other side:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall...
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down...
On the other side of the wall, I was in Bethlehem and Palestinian Authority territory. By chance, I met up with two Czechs whom I had met the other day on the bus across the Jordanian border to Allenby. They were a mother and son duo, traveling to the Holy Land for Christmas, which I found rather touching for some reason. We took a taxi together into central Bethlehem, with the driver taking all kinds of circuitous routes to avoid the roadblocks set up for Abu Mazen's visit (AKA Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President). He was arriving later in the day to attend midnight mass.
We arrived just in time to see a parade of Palestinian drummers from the local schools march down main street. Bethlehem is a largely Arab Christian town, and the place was dressed up for the occasion, with lights and streamers everywhere. I headed up to Manger Square (yes, that's really what it's called) which was packed with people in anticipation of the Latin Patriarch's procession into the Church of the Nativity. This is one of the events that is beamed around the world, and one side of the square was packed with TV vans, their satellite dishes pointing skyward. There was a BBC Radio reporter next to me interviewing various people: an American Christian pilgrim (no, it wasn't me), a Palestinian from Bethlehem, an Indian priest... it became clear to me as the day went on how much of a global event this was, with people coming from all over the world to be here on this day. I felt very lucky.
Finally the Patriarch arrived and entered the Church of the Nativity with a procession of priests (or monks; I'm not sure) singing behind him. People were clapping, and some were crying. I've never seen anything like it. I can only imagine that this is what the Hajj and other religious pilgrimages are like, with their ability to awaken strong emotions in people.
I joined the procession along with a throng of other people, and I was swept into the Church. The church is built over a grotto where Jesus was born. Behind the altar, you descend down into the cave, and there is a metal star on the exact spot where people believe he was born. Back up in the church, various processions occurred throughout the day, with much singing and chanting by the monks.
As I walked over to the Milk Grotto Chapel, it began to rain lightly. The Milk Grotto Chapel commemorates the lactating of Mary, and is built over another grotto where the Holy Family supposedly stayed on their way to exile in Egypt. It was a beautiful chapel, and very peaceful, in contrast to the scene back on Manger Square. Women with fertility problems come here to pray for Mary's intercession, and one wall was covered with letters from people around the world who had prayed there and then finally been able to conceive. As I was leaving the chapel, an angelic young girl four years old or so said "Merry Christmas" to me. It was one of the rare traveling moments when I wish I had a camera.
I wandered back to the Church of the Nativity to see what was going on, and the rain started to come down stronger. I found out that there were only a limited number of tickets available for the midnight mass, and it was also around this time that they kicked everyone out of the church to set up for the big midnight event. Now it was absolutely pouring outside, the wind was blowing, and it was cold. Manger Square emptied out as people took refuge from the elements wherever they could.
I wavered as to whether or not I should stay and try to get in for midnight mass. I put off making a decision and took refuge in a restaurant across the square instead. The restaurant was crowded, and I had already ordered my meal when the waiter asked me if he could seat another person at my table. Of course I agreed, and a soaking wet guy in his mid-20s sat down. We started chatting, and it turned out he was American. We talked some more, and we found out that we were both from Seattle, and even had a few mutual acquaintances. What were the chances? He said he had just arrived in Bethlehem, and was waiting for a friend of his that had been stuck at the Nablus checkpoint for over six hours. The Israeli army had closed it, and he didn't know if his friend would be able to make it to Bethlehem at all. Such is life in the West Bank, for Palestinians and tourists alike -- your plans are completely at the mercy of (Israeli Defense) forces beyond your control.
The rain was still coming down, and hanging around for five more hours in the hope of getting a ticket didn't appeal to me. So I decided to head back to Jerusalem. (As it turned out, I made the right decision. The next day I ran into the Czechs I mentioned earlier. They had stayed until 10:30pm, but didn't get a ticket. Due to Abu Mazen's visit, the tickets had been allocated hours before, mostly to VIPs). I took a cab to the checkpoint, and once I got through, realized there were absolutely no buses or taxis. I waited a bit longer, but nothing came, so I started the long walk back to Jerusalem in the driving rain. After about half a mile, way out in the outskirts of Jerusalem, and feeling like I was going to drown in the rain, my Christmas miracle occurred: a taxi pulled up alongside me.
Within 40 minutes I was back at my warm hotel and dried myself off in time to attend midnight mass in Jerusalem.
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