“They don’t let them into the city to meet real Palestinians anymore!” Words shared with me yesterday outside the Nativity Church in Bethlehem from Ahmed. “They are just greedy and selfish.” I’m finishing a 3 month term serving with EAPPI as an Ecumenical Accompanier, providing protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitoring and reporting on the situation at checkpoints, learning about the ramifications of the wall to all sides in the current situation in the West Bank. Have also had the opportunity to visit a settlement and meet with Israeli and Jewish activists who disagree with many of the current policies and strategies of the current Israeli government.
I haven’t entered the typical build-up to Christmas as normally experienced in the US. I’m still in Hebron, just south of Bethlehem by about 20 kilometers, through Dec. 5th. I’m in Bethlehem taking a few needed days off and trying to reflect on what I’ve seen and experienced in my time here. I’m also trying to prepare for Advent. Some of that includes buying gifts for loved ones. But I also want to take advantage of being so close to where it all started–the place of Christ’s birth. There are others here doing the same. Many tourists from around the world make their way to Bethlehem this time of the year, trying to get close to the story of Jesus. But most miss the point.
There is plenty of room in the Bethlehem Inn, or other nice hotels where people camp out before they head over to Manger Square and step through the very low door into the Church of the Nativity. The “door of humility,” a small rectangular entrance to the church, was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters, and to force even the most important visitor to dismount from his horse as he entered the holy place. The doorway was reduced from an earlier Crusader doorway. The different iterations of the entry can be seen in the stones and refurbished masonry, kind of in reverse of the height charts on your wall at home showing the growth of your children. It appears the door kept getting smaller, making it less penetrable by invading forces.
The tourists today arrive in droves in December. They arrive in beautiful buses, not donkeys. Tour guides shape the story and guide them step by step through a tight script, photo opps, plenty of food, and trips to trinket stores. Wonder what Jesus thinks of all this hubbub. “Those tour guides get a big commission from each stop on the tour. They are all greedy,” continues Ahmed. I went over to the coffee shop next to the Nativity Church for a nice hot cappuccino. Probably something Joseph and Mary didn’t do when they came looking for a place to rest for a night.
So much has happened here in Bethlehem since those humble beginnings. It’s amazing to think that where I stood yesterday, it is reported that 100 Israeli tanks, and snipers, were poised, taking shots at the Nativity church, just a little over 10 years ago during the 2nd intifada. They were trying to capture 200 Palestinian militants who had found refuge in the church. It is reported that tourism took a big hit because of that siege. Wonder why? But now, more than a decade away, the tourism spicket seems to be wide open.
Part of me would like to return home and forget some of what I’ve seen the last few months here in the West Bank. I’d like to have the warm devotional thoughts about advent, and the Christmas story. I’d like to join those tourists on the warm, heated bus. It can hit freezing in December here in Bethlehem. With central heating a rare thing, except for the nicer hotels and tour buses, you feel exposed to the elements. Much like Mary and Joseph, and Jesus of course.
Part of me is emotionally raw, another part angry, because of what I’ve seen and experienced here in the West Bank the last 3 months. The Kingdom of God which Jesus came to inaugurate seems absent still. The operative word is “seems.” The great proclamation that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” [John 1:14] (as we are, not as we wish it would be), assures us that God did in fact enter human history through his incarnation. And he is at work through you and me to give hints of what that Kingdom looks like. I’ve met some courageous Palestinians and Israeli activists these past months. Many keep working for peace, by using non-violent means. They are the leaven in the dough that God seems to be using to move things in the right direction.
This season of Advent, a season of waiting and cultivating hope in the work and presence of Christ among and through us, gives me strength. Our sense of anticipation is heightened looking forward to the day when the lion will lie down with the lamb, death and destruction will be swallowed up, and every tear will be wiped away. Peace in the Middle East, and our extended families and places of service will come in full. Advent captures in microcosm the big picture of Christ’s work of redemption.
Don’t board the tourist bus. Mix it up with the locals. Be agents of the Kingdom, beacons of hope pointing to the key figure of the Advent season where you live and serve Christ this advent. “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16.