A letter from Bethlehem
“Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about’
Recently whilst visiting Shepherds Field in Beit Sahour, east of Bethlehem, I encountered a young boy carrying a lamb on his shoulders. Beit Sahour is an Arabic name that means “Watchers of the night” a reference to shepherds who watched over the sheep at night. The young boy carrying his lamb reminded me of Jesus our Shepherd. It was to humble watchers of the night that God chose to reveal his glory, an angel of the Lord proclaimed good news of great joy that would be for all people. The shepherds were told a Saviour had been born in the town of David , who was Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you declared the angel, “you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger”. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” The shepherds hurried the short distance to see this thing that had happened, which the angel had told them about. They were not disappointed, they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. They spread the word and all who heard were amazed.
I have read recently of a conversation where a Muslim merchant said “believe me, Bethlehem without the name of Jesus is worth nothing” - Bethlehem without Christ is not noteworthy. Today geographically it is small town under occupation as in the day of Christ’s birth. It is a small area where difficulties, severe conditions, a lack of freedom of movement, illegal separation walls and barriers affect the daily living conditions for those living there. It is surrounded by illegal settlements that continue to be built.
Since the first visit of the shepherds seeking Jesus, pilgrims from around the world have and continue to make the journey to humble Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened! A star at the Church of Nativity marks the birth of Christ. It is called the star of Bethlehem. Many who visit are oblivious of the living conditions for Palestinians and the dwindling Arab Christian community, who if they are able to study or live overseas, do so in order to live lives of freedom.
Pilgrims flock to humble little Bethlehem to visit the place Christ was born. A town that relies heavily on tourism. They come in anticipation, they come from the nations of the world, they queue to see the star of Bethlehem. They come from afar to this little town whose status was raised by the birth of the King of Kings, where Emmanuel ‘God with us’, became fully human yet fully divine. There is a saying by locals: “everyday is Christmas in Bethlehem”
As I write this article I am in Gaza, visiting the little strip of land that is under siege by land, air and sea. I have visited many projects and organizations here over the years. I have witnessed the unbearable living conditions the people face and I visit Christian communities facing the similar dilemma of their young Christian adults leaving and the numbers of Christians dwindling. This is causing great concern for the local churches in the holy land. I find it distressing that as the nations flock to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened, the majority of Christians living in Gaza are not able to make the short journey to join family and friends in Bethlehem. They are unlike those pilgrims from afar who are able to visit, celebrate and worship Christ the star of Bethlehem. The reality for Christians in Gaza is that it is difficult to get permits to leave regardless of the occasion. The Church in Gaza has to put names of those seeking permits to leave for religious reason including visiting Bethlehem to celebrate ‘this thing that has happened’ the birth of Christ. Israel usually starts the process forty-five days before Christmas, this year with a month to go the process hadn’t started. There are just under a thousand Christians in Gaza, many leaving if they get the chance. All apply for visas then they have to gather together in the Churches to hear the names called and to hear if they have been successful in their application.
Leaving Gaza this time was one of the saddest experience I have had as we sat on a bus waiting to be taken to the Israeli Eretz crossing. There was an elderly Grandma with a seriously ill baby whose mum and dad did not receive permits to travel with their baby to a hospital in Jerusalem for treatment. Parents and child separated at a heartbreaking time in their lives. She was not the only Grandma we witnessed that day struggling to take sick children, some cancer patients, to be treated in Israel. We were able to take the Grandma on her journey to Jerusalem, instead of her struggling on two buses with a sick child who was having problems breathing.
As pilgrims travel from the four corners of the world throughout the year and particularly at this time of the year to ‘see this thing they have heard about’ let us spare a thought and prayers for those unable to travel the short journey to celebrate with family and friends in Bethlehem because of the lack of freedom of movement. As we remember and celebrate Mary the young Mother who also had a difficult journey to make under occupation, who gave birth in a place where there was no room, may we hold in our hearts all those who this Christmas are suffering, and who by faith hold on to the promise of ‘Emmanuel God with us’ Christmas greetings from Bethlehem
Mission Partner to the Holy land