Bethlehem. Jesus’ birth place. The town where everything is still, calm and bright, where our hopes and dreams are bathed in everlasting Light. At least that is how I have always imagined Bethlehem, thanks to Phillips Brooks (1835-1903) who wrote the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem in 1868, following a pilgrimage to what many now call the Holy Land. Tonight I look out from the Star Hotel and this is what I see. No stars; only light from towers. The tower on the far right is the Church of the Nativity and the tower to its left is a surveillance tower staffed by guards of the Israeli army. And of course you can see parts of the wall dividing the land and the peoples.
I’m usually a deep sleeper, but I find it is hard to sleep in Bethlehem. Maybe it’s all that wonderfully strong coffee (with a hint of cardamom!). Or maybe it’s because tonight, just like last night and the night before, I lament. I lament the formidable wall that winds and towers around this city. I lament the number of lives injured, traumatized, and lost today, yesterday, this week, this year, dating all the way back to the wars in 1967 and 1948. I lament the Holocaust. I lament violence, oppression, greed, unchecked power, and injustice in every place, in all times, including in my home land, the United States (a divided country that is lining up to vote as I type this.) I bought this crèche as a reminder to me that all is not calm and bright in the walled city of Bethlehem. There are many walls to lament in many of our cities and towns.
At 4 am, when prayers are broadcasted for all in the city to hear, I imagine it to be the voice of Rachel crying for her children who are no more. (Jeremiah 3:18 and Matthew 2:18) The irony of course is that we are less than a quarter of a mile from Rachel’s tomb, a tomb that is blocked off by the wall. I want to believe Rachel and all the Matriarchs would or are shedding tears for all loss of life in this region. Perhaps the angels who keep “watch with wondrous love” are weeping as well.
Now as I get ready to lie down, I hear the bells ringing. And I hum with the strength and hope I have tonight:
“O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel”