BETHLEHEM — While Christians in all nations turn their thoughts toward Bethlehem, the town itself will be eerily quiet. Children around the world will sing Silent Night. But in Bethlehem all is not calm, and all is not bright.
There will be silence in Bethlehem this Christmas, but it will not be a serene silence broken only by the happy gurgling of a newborn baby. The silence this year in Bethlehem will be pregnant with fear, the silence that descends after the heavy guns go quiet. There will be silence in Bethlehem this year — a somber silence broken only by the sobs of mothers mourning their children.
Given the violence that has afflicted Bethlehem in the last several months, the heads of the 13 Christian Churches in Jerusalem decided to cancel the public festivities usually held in Bethlehem — so there will be no Christmas lights, minimal Christmas decorations, fewer Christmas concerts.
As usual, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, will celebrate Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, but aside from the usual liturgical celebrations, there will be little else.
Christmas has not been canceled in Bethlehem this year, but to many — especially those who depend on pilgrims for their livelihood — it will seem like it.
Violence between Israelis and Palestinians has roiled the West Bank (where Bethlehem is located, a short drive from Jerusalem) since the 1967 war and subsequent Israeli occupation, and in particular since the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) in 1987.
But this year has been especially bloody. The Israeli armed forces occupied Bethlehem for 10 days in October and 22 Palestinians were killed in clashes with soldiers.
The Israeli government has defended the attacks in the Palestinian territories as necessary measures against continuing terror attacks, including shelling by Palestinians of the Jewish settlement of Gilo and the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister. The cycle of claims and counter-claims continues, but Bethlehem has been shaken by the violence, which has arrived at Manger Square itself, the center of the town of 14,000 Muslims and 13,000 Christians.
On Oct. 19, Israeli troops reached within a quarter-mile of the Square and the Church of the Nativity. Nativity Street itself is now a mile-long strip of gutted hotels, bulldozed shops and buildings pockmarked by bullets.
And then there was the killing of Johnny Talgieh, a 17-year-old Palestinian who served Mass in the Church of the Nativity. He was returning one evening from the church when he was shot in the chest. Palestinian witnesses said that it was a stray bullet from a machine-gun mounted on an Israeli tank. Wherever the bullet came from, the effect was definite — Johnny collapsed and died in Manger Square.
A 12-foot monument has since been erected on the spot, featuring Talgieh's face and verses from St. John Gospel (11:25-26) chiseled into the white stone.
And so the traditional Christmas Tree in Manger Square will be accompanied this year by a silent memorial to the violence. The iron shutters of the shops of Manger Square are not so mute — posters in honor of local gunmen are a common sight, and seething anger against Israeli policy is evident.
I visited Bethlehem last Easter Week, as part of a group of 50 pilgrims. Even then, before the current escalation of violence, there were only a few others.
We were able to make an extended visit to the Grotto of the Nativity — a site where the crush of pilgrims used to permit only a brief stop. Manger Square was likewise deserted, and in the middle of the day we had our pick of many otherwise vacant shops in which to buy religious articles and to eat.
Word arrived last October that the owners of one of the shops we visited awoke one night to find tanks parked outside their home. They did not suffer personal attack like the Taglieh family, but live in fear.
Their home is only a short walk from Manger Square.
Many of the people we met on our pilgrimage send messages to the effect that the situation is beyond desperate, and the even the trickle of visitors of last spring has dried up. The hotels where we stayed in Nazareth and Jerusalem are both closed, their workers laid off, for lack of pilgrims.
The Eyes of Faith
The Church of the Nativity, like many of the Holy Sites, is not a thing of beauty in itself. Given the shared custody of the Holy Sites among the various Christian Churches, most of them languish in a state neglect that ranges from shabby to derelict.
For the American visitor, it is a shock to realize that, for example, most supermarket parking lots are cleaner and better maintained than places like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
All of which is to say that visiting the Holy Land is a matter of looking with the eyes of faith, for the sensory experience alone is underwhelming in the extreme.
This Christmas in Bethlehem, the eyes of faith will be needed more than ever, as all the other evidence apparently militates against hopes for peace. Sometimes it is possible to see the hand of Providence almost visible in history. Christmas 2001 in Bethlehem is not one of those times.
It is only the eyes of faith that will be able to see, amidst the rubble of broken buildings and broken hearts, that Christmas is the good news of great joy, the coming of a Savior in the City of David.
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
The silent stars go by
Yet in the darkness shineth,
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Bethlehem lies not still, but angry and grieving this Christmas. The darkness of too many nights has been illuminated only by gunfire and explosions. There are too few hopes and too many fears.
But despite this, perhaps the bleakest Christmas in years, the everlasting light will be proclaimed again. On Christmas morning in the Church of the Nativity they will read the prologue of St. John's Gospel: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”
And those few who are there, in Jesus’ birthplace, will know this is still true.