Every December our thoughts turn to Bethlehem. But what was Bethlehem really like? What is it like today? Sometimes I imagine there is a light dusting of new fallen snow, sometimes it is rough-hewn desert, with only the occasional palm tree to be found.
I have been to this Bethlehem many times in my imagination, but was fortunate enough to actually go to the city of Bethlehem last year. I looked upon the place Jesus was born, and the hallowed spot where history was forever altered so many centuries ago.
It was not the quiet, peaceful serene place I had envisioned, no stable filled with hay, and no shepherds in the fields nearby. It was not the Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago, However, there remains a unique feel to Bethlehem. Having seen centuries of shifting politics and shifting sands, there remains a special sense of holiness lingering in the air simply because of the history of the place, and the almost tangible remembrance of those who have spent parts of their lives here.
This December I’d like to share some of the sights of Bethlehem with you. It truly is an extraordinary place for so many reasons. Today, I’ll start with the city itself.
Bethlehem was the home of Ruth and Boaz, the birthplace of King Saul and King David, the birthplace of Jesus the Messiah, and it’s significance cannot be underestimated. However, the political landscape of Bethlehem today is tricky.
Atop the building in the following picture flies the Palestinian flag. Palestine is not a nation, but the area ultimately falls under Israeli jurisdiction. However, the day-to-day affairs of Bethlehem are governed by the Palestinian authority, and as such our Jewish guide did not enter the area, but handed us over to a Arab Christian guide. Just one example of the complex politics of the area. That said, at no point in Israel did I ever feel ‘unsafe’. In fact, I felt as safe as I ever have anywhere.
Across the street is the Bethlehem Peace Center. And from the peace center hangs a large portrait of Mahmoud Abbas, the current leader of the Palestinian government. No offense to Mr. Abbas, but it was a reminder to me that this contested land has had many rulers: the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans the British and the Jordanians are just a few. I was reminded that the kingdoms of this world are temporary, and will someday give way to the Kingdom of our God, and the only true peace we will ever find comes from the Prince of Peace, born just a few yards away so many years ago.
The exterior of the Church of the Nativity is unassuming, which is fitting considering the humble birth of the Prince of Peace whom it honors. The entryway requires bending down, some say in order to enter the church in humility before the King who was born in that place so many centuries ago.
In part two we will head inside the church itself and I’ll tell a little bit about my experience there.