As we leave Jerusalem, the roads change. Paved roads flanked by footpaths of smoothed, weathered down Jerusalem stone are soon replaced by narrow, winding and bumpy laneways and paths. In the fading, golden light the tour bus, weaves its way through traffic, sirens, soldiers and pilgrims. We are on our way to the sleepy town of Bethlehem, where each year worshippers, pilgrims and the curious flock to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square. Signs greet the ebb and flow of tourists making their way into the centre of the small town… “we welcome you on your journey as we welcomed the Prince of Peace.”
A late change of plans sees President of the Palestinian National Authority decide to join the worshippers in Midnight Mass, closing the Church of the Nativity to the public early, resulting in disappointment and confusion among the gathered pilgrims and travellers. Only a small number of worshippers will be allowed inside the Church to take part in the Mass itself. The gathering crowds appear somewhat sparse, with numbers down in recent years, areas of the square remaining unoccupied as groups of tourists continue to file into the town centre.
Having been barred from the Church of the Nativity, our group is offered a quick tour of the Milk Grotto Chapel, the place at which Mary and Joseph stopped to feed their baby during their flight to Egypt. Here, a drop of milk is said to have touched the red rock, turning it white. Hidden in a winding laneway, the small chapel is dark and cool. The chalky, white ceiling contrasts with the smooth, almost opaque tiles weathered by the touch and footsteps of countless pilgrims and travellers. The white rock is said to bring milk to a mother’s bosom and enhance the fertility of women who swallow powder from the Grotto’s ceiling. The Grotto itself can be found somewhere in the criss-crossing streets that surround the square.
It is in these winding lanes where much of Bethlehem’s charm is revealed. Souvenir shops, small eateries and olive wood workshops, rich with the smell of carved wood line the streets. Here, a woodworker smiles warmly as I peek through the doorway of his small workshop, tucked behind a gleaming souvenir store. Despite no common language, he grins and gestures that I should join him. He demonstrates how great, unwieldy blocks of wood are meticulously smoothed, carved and oiled into miniature replicas of the baby Jesus in his manger, variously sized depictions of the Virgin Mary, or tiny, curved crucifixes that fit snug in the palm of your hand.
The darkened stairs of the local Bethlehem postal and municipal offices provide refuge from the increasingly icy evening. High above the city square on the surrounding roofs, the spirit of the season seems alive and well. Curious tourists, those brave enough to venture upstairs and poke their noses around inside press tents, are welcomed by smiling journalists. From here, under the bright television spotlights, the little town of Bethlehem glows, her lights strung across the square glimmering like small jewels in the night, against the inky sky.
Here, an IT worker from New York who travelled into Bethlehem on the same tour smiles broadly from the rooftop, her cheeks slightly pink from the cold and excitement. “It’s just so amazing to be here… It gives meaning to all those stories and images I’ve seen growing up.”
“In Jerusalem,” she adds, “it doesn’t feel like Christmas, but here, it does.”
I am struck by a different feeling. The warm restaurants and winding alleyways, lit by Christmas decorations and candlelight, often stand in stark contrast to their surrounds. The town is nothing like Christmas cards depicting Bethlehem as a sleepy town of peace. The reality is that the small Manger Square is surrounded by small towns and villages laced with pothole roads and darkened, empty shop fronts. Today, the Christian message of hope and peace emanates from an apparent wasteland of conflict, rather than the technicolour representations of Jesus’ birthplace in popular depictions.
Later, well into the cold night, the Mass begins. Huddled tight in close groups, icy puffs of breath escaping in the freezing night, tourists gather around screens to watch the Mass from outside the Church. Pilgrims and tourists wring their hands and constantly adjust themselves, sitting or standing, in attempts to guard against the cold. The Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy land, addresses each group gathered in its native language – a list so extensive that even once the cold became too much to bear and we retreated inside for a thick, sickly sweet hot chocolate, was still in full swing. The patriarch implores the gathered pilgrims, that they are the shepherds of today, those that had travelled in order to spread the news of the birth of the baby Jesus. It is now their job to proclaim the message and make it known far and wide what God has done for the love of humanity.
We make our way back to Jerusalem in the early hours of Christmas Day, along the same winding roads as before. The surrounding hills roll out before us in an endless darkness that becomes one with the sky above, punctuated only occasionally by small clusters of light. The all encompassing night reminds me that when I was a child I used to believe that night would fall once God had placed a blanket over the sky from above, the stars tiny holes in His well worn blanket that let the light from above shine through, even in the darkness. Here, in the rolling hills around Bethlehem it looks as though the blanket covers not just the night sky, but spreads across the ancient, disputed terrain too.
In an area that needs it most, even in the darkest night amidst an at times uncertain future, it seems that God has not forgotten this little land, and that hope still exists despite the surrounding, deeply engrained turmoil.