O Little Town of Bethlehem

The reality of Christ's birthplace, then and now

“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.

22 Comments

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4Truth commented…

That you would compare this wall to the violent Apartheid in South Africa to a wall for security in Israel only demonstrates your ignorance and desire to promote an agenda. The two are not comparable. Have YOU been to Bethlehem? I would suggest watching the video that was posted. http://link.brightcove.com/ser...

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Fsofindy commented…

I havevisited and remained friends withPalestinian Christiansin Bethlehem and the statements you say are false. When was the last time you heard of a rocket being fired from Bethlehem into Israel? The Palestinians in the West Bank can't even get the materials to make the rocket to fire into Israel!I suggest you learn YOUR facts before you post on these matters. Actually, the Israelis who are controlling the Occupied Territories in the West Bank are torturing the Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem and other places.It is a contrast to what our Western government and media paints of these good-hearted people, who are living in the utmost, horrid conditions in Bethlehem, and you really have to go there and experience the culture to see it for yourself. MainstreamWestern media can produce much propaganda on the issues to makethePalestinians seem like they areALL terrorists. It's been my experience that it'sthe Israeli's that talk of such hatred against the Palestinians, while the Palestinians just express peace and an end to the conflict. All they want is a normal, just way of life for their families. Yes, I was shocked at the reality of the situation over there, because of themainstream, Western media and government paints such a false picture of what the reality really is over there. Seems like you're bought into this falsehood as well.

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Wendy Jennings commented…

Yay Andrew! Great article. Inta chatir ktiir wa suftak ktiir fi baytlehem. I7na laazim na7ki fi wheaton :)

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Jacobrpaul commented…

A video with no context...thanks- yes it's sad to see people fighting. Honestly, no, I have not been to Bethlehem, but would like to go someday. However, I do know people who have gone and experienced this sadness. Also, I am not the only one comparing this wall to Apartheid:
Here is what other prominent South Africans have to say about the issue of Israel and apartheid."I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about."
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu"Israel came to resemble more and more apartheid South Africa at its zenith -- even surpassing its brutality, house demolitions, removal of communities, targeted assassinations, massacres, imprisonment and torture of its opponents, collective punishment and the aggression against neighbouring states."
- Former South African Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils from a speech at Israel Apartheid Week 2009."But what is interesting is that every black South African that I've spoken to who has visited the Palestinian territory has been horrified and has said without hesitation that the system that applies in Palestine is worse."
- Professor John Dugard, Former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine."Apartheid Israel can be defeated, just as apartheid in South Africa was defeated."
- Winnie Mandela"When I come here and see the situation [in the Palestinian territories], I find that what is happening here is 10 times worse than what I had experienced in South Africa. This is Apartheid."
- Arun GhandiBut what would they know?

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Tom Getman commented…

In response to "4Truth" ...having just returned from 10 days in Jerusalem/Bethlehem I can assure her, as the news has underlined in the past week, that the violence directed at Bethlehem Christians is not "from the end of the Muslims" but rather from extreme settlers and other Israeli provocation. In fact just recently a Bethlehem Bible College bus carrying peace loving students to the northern West Bank for Christmas concerts was attacked by young Israeli settler "terrorists" condemned by PM Netanyahu himself in a Cabinet Meeting. Andrew Haas had it just right and frankly much of the hostility in the region would diminish greatly if the occupation ended and settlers stopped stealing Palestinian land (now half of Bethlehem's). And by the way, the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Bethlehem is close, personal and mutually supportive. Every time I have been in the Nativity Church over the last 25 years I have found myself next to Muslim followers of Issa Messia (Jesus the Messiah) with the same desire to follow Him as I, and my Christian friends there, have. The question then remains "why is it that Israelis have to live behind the onerous wall?" Being good neighbors brings security not heavy handed policies based on xenophobia. This challenges us to support peace loving people on both sides of the barrier and to be faithful interlocutors who share the "truth" not misinformation. Tom Getman, former NGO director in Jerusalem.

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