With Christmas just round the corner and I reflect on Christ’s birth, I often think of the words of my favorite carol,
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
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth
And so, I was blessed to have just returned from a visit to the Holy Land and I got to go to Bethlehem. And just in time too, as with President Trump’s announcement of the USA recognising Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, things there are likely to become a whole lot more complicated and unsafe.
I have to say that Bethlehem was not at all what I expected. As per the carol above, I would always imagine Bethlehem as a quiet, sleepy little village. The reality is that Bethlehem is a noisy, bustling, dusty town. The streets are filled with traffic and there is a busy bus terminal a short distance from the Church of the Nativity (the supposed birthplace of Christ). I don’t think these days there is any “how still we see thee lie” or “Silent Night” in Bethlehem.
The other thing that I witnessed in my short visit was the animosity and fear. Bethlehem is under Palestinian Authority and Israel has built a very, very tall wall separating it from Jerusalem and Jewish settlements (part of a 708 km long barrier which the Israelis call a security barrier, the Palestinians call an apartheid wall and the International Court of Justice called illegal). In Bethlehem, the wall is up to 8 m high.
As a result of the barrier, Palestinians cannot easily travel around to Israeli controlled areas without permits and having to undergo security searches at the few gates in the barrier. I know of one former colleague whose 5 minute walk to work was transformed to a one hour commute due to the barrier. Similarly, Israelis cannot venture into Palestinian controlled areas with out due cause and permits and if they do, personal safety is always a worry. These difficulties have also reduced tourism, business and jobs in Palestinian areas.
I also witnessed the tension within the community. On the streets and in the shops, suspicion and wariness of each other was occasionally evident between the different communities. I also saw some Islamic extremist hate literature plastered on some walls and heard the duel between the Muslim call for azan and the pealing of church bells.
There is no peace and there is no quiet on the streets of Bethlehem today. What would Jesus think?
I think, Jesus would not be surprised. Man will be selfish, jealous, covetous and contentious. It is the nature of man, our sinful nature and this is why he came to be born; to give us a better way which is beyond our own means to attain. This is the hope that he brings. Peace and hope.
And if the world seems, for the most part at the moment, to be ignoring his message, perhaps it is no surprise either. The King of Heaven was born in Bethlehem but the world mostly ignored him then too. In fact, as we are told, there was no room for him at the inn.
On that note, I want to end this reflection with sharing about an inn or rather a hotel that I saw in Bethlehem. It gave me a chuckle amidst all the gloom. The hotel is right by the wall. It faces the wall. The management admits that it has “the worst view of any hotel in the world” and its rooms only get about 28 minutes of direct sunlight a day. This is Bethlehem’s answer to the famous Waldorf Hotel. It is the Walled Off Hotel.
I later learned that this hotel was set up by the famous artist, Banksy, to help create job opportunities for the Palestinians, support Palestinian artists (the hotel also functions as an art gallery) and make a statement about the political situation and the wall.
Ladies and gents ……….. I give you the Walled Off Hotel.