O Little Town of Bethlehem
By andrew haas
December 22, 2011
“O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie / Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.”
Sleepy. Bethlehem was and is a drowsy town to this day, but not by choice. Jesus’ birthplace has been forced into a “deep and dreamless sleep,” the kind that descends upon a man or woman with a dwindling future, little livelihood and vacant hope. That’s not to say there is not an abundance of life. The streets of Bethlehem are an LED-lit extravaganza during this advent season. Muslims and Christians alike partake in the festivities, nightly concerts rock the cobbled square in front of Jesus’ birthplace and the likes of Celine Dion and Michael W. Smith grace the Arabic airwaves. However, the lights, music and commercial joy are only a slight refrain from the struggles of this town.
Had Jesus been born in Bethlehem today, the nativity scenes that adorn the numerous American church and parish lawns would look quite different if genuinely politically correct. Mary and Joseph, probably too poor to pay local taxes on a vehicle, would be forced to ride Palestinian local transit. The bus would drop them off outside the West Bank at an Israeli checkpoint. From there they’d walk through a maze of turnstiles and security posts into Bethlehem. If their identity card read "Israeli citizen," there is some question whether the expectant couple would even be allowed into the sleepy hamlet based on current law. Replace the donkeys, sheep and mules with taxis, buses and heavily armed checkpoints.
Once inside Bethlehem’s city limits, the newlyweds would find an abundance of vacant inns and cribs. Listen to the guided description for foreign tourists and you learn that, due to its Palestinian population, the small town is believed to be somewhat dangerous and not a place to linger. Internationals ride in on luxury buses, speed walk straight to the Church of the Nativity—careful to avoid a stranger’s “Merry Christmas, from where are you?”—and race right out. Thus, Mary and Joseph could easily bargain for a great rate at a comfortable hotel. Replace the barn and stable with a room at the empty Intercontinental.
Considering that the wise men are believed to have come from somewhere around modern-day Iran, Iraq or Saudi Arabia, their chances of crossing into Israel today would be slim to none due to understandably high security. So, for the sake of this story, let’s say that the Middle East sages were upstanding Israeli citizens. Nope. Israeli law would still prohibit them from entering the city of Bethlehem. Place an eight-meter-high wall between the Magi and baby Jesus.
What about the shepherds? The shepherds are the only piece of this modern account that hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. They’re still herding sheep, and can be found taking an apple-flavored hookah break at a nearby cafe. Leave them as they are.
Yet, this nativity scene falls short of communicating some basic realities of Jesus’ conception into modern-day Bethlehem. If God’s son had been born into the sleepy hamlet today, He’d be without citizenship. Palestine is still a territory, not a country. Considered to be a security threat from birth, He’d receive his green Palestinian ID at the age of 16. Without authorization granted only by the Israeli government, He would be prohibited from crossing the wall into Jerusalem only 15 minutes away. Permits are difficult to acquire, and often only last one to five months. His inability to travel past a wall four times the height of Shaquille O’Neal would prove a slight obstacle for a Gospel destined for the world.
Inside Bethlehem, Jesus and His parents could still practice carpentry. Many men work in factories producing lovely carvings from the treasured olive tree. Yet, His olivewood carvings would collect dust in shops that tourists are often too afraid to enter.
Oddly enough, the place where Christ entered in is now the spot where Christians are on their way out. Bethlehem’s Christian population has dropped by roughly half in the past 70 years, and surprisingly, this exodus is not due to religious persecution. A healthy respect exists in the city between the Muslims and Christians. Leaders of both faiths can be found in the Church of the Nativity on Christmas morning, and at the mosque later that afternoon. Christians are emigrating because of the lack of economy and personal freedom. Mothers and fathers struggle to provide a semblance of normalcy for their families in a world encompassed by cement walls, barbed wire, machine guns and checkpoints. No parent desires to see their child grow up in a world where dreams remain unrealized counterparts of childhood.
However, Jesus hasn’t forgotten about His hometown and its inhabitants. He’s radiantly alive in the hearts and minds of the Palestinian church: a church that has faithfully endured for more than 2,000 years. It’s many in the Western church who have bypassed these forgotten faithful, and blithely accepted the presence of walls and wires instead of the pursuance of freedom and peace on earth for all—Israelis and Palestinians. In His advent into our discordant world, Jesus’ proclamation of life and freedom is as needful today as it was 2,000 years ago.
“Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long /Beneath the angel-strain have rolled 2,000 years of wrong / Andman, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring / Oh hushthe noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.”
Andrew Haas is a sophomore at Wheaton College in Chicago, Illinois. He is currently taking a semester off to study Arabic in Bethlehem.