Sunset Over Bethlehem
Sunset Over Bethlehem

Bethlehem had a long history before the birth of Jesus. Rachel was buried in Bethlehem and David, as well as his great-grandparents Ruth and Boaz, was born in Bethlehem,. Bethlehem today is a Palestinian city with a mixed Christian/Muslim population. It has been a destination for Christians and has offered hospitality to pilgrims for centuries. The visiting of Bethlehem by Christians, as well as the welfare of residents, is being challenged by concrete walls and electric fences. There are often periods when Christian visitors are not allowed in or are restricted by Israel. The borders are subject to change. For instance, Israel declared Rachel’s Tomb to be in Jerusalem in the late 1990’s, even though it is a Muslim cemetery and a biblical site located in Bethlehem (Gen 35:19 and 48:7). Settlements built on Bethlehem land are sometimes declared to be part of Jerusalem. This should not prevent you from visiting, as this is a major part of the Christian heritage. 

Entering Bethlehem, as you come from Jerusalem, means you have to go through the Wall via a major checkpoint. Tour buses are often given preference but individuals and some groups are stopped for inspection. Your American passport will get you in. Bethlehem has many walls and they will make it somewhat difficult for you to get around. But remember that Christian Palestinians, living with these Walls, are kept from going places every day by these same Walls. They cut some of the people off from their churches and some children from their church-related schools. They keep Palestinian Christians from going to Jerusalem on Christian holidays.

Door to Basilica
Door to Basilica

The Basilica of the Nativity is on Manger Square and most tours take you there. Public buses go there also so it is easily accessible. It is entered through a low door where you have to stoop to walk through. It is claimed that the low entrance is a reminder to pilgrims that they need to humble themselves before God. The low door was actually built during the Ottoman Empire so that looters could not drive wagons into the church. The entrance was once larger as can be seen by the lintel framing the door.

Iconostasis
Iconostasis

The church was built over the site where Christ is traditionally said to have been born and placed in a manager. Early writers refer to a cave rather than a stable since both people and animals lived in caves in Jesus’ time, due to a scarcity of wooden building materials. There are people still living in Bethlehem who remember growing up with a cave as the family house. 

Inside, the basilica is a space not much altered since it was built by Queen Helena in the 4th Century. Trapdoors in the floor reveal Byzantine mosaics and the pillars contain Crusader paintings of patron saints and mosaics commemorating the early councils of the church. Two icons in the front area are worth noting. One is of a midwife getting ready to bathe the baby and testing the temperature of the water with her elbow. The other is a typical Greek Orthodox icon of the nativity picturing the theology of the nativity rather than a family scene. (See Worshiping in the Holyland). Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, and angels all appear at once in their biblical roles.

Church of the Nativity
Grotto of Church of Nativity

Steps lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity, marking the site of Jesus’ birth. An altar was erected over the birthplace and a fourteen-pointed silver star was embedded in the white marble. It is lit by silver lamps representing different Christian communities. Nearby is an altar dedicated to the Wise Men who came from the East guided by a star. Return to the basilica and go into the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine, built in 1881. This is the place where

Christmas Eve Mass is broadcast through TV networks all over the world. It is also the location of a thriving Christian congregation with services on Sundays welcoming visiting Christians.

Popular olive wood carvings
Popular olive wood carvings

Back on Manger Square you will find numerous souvenir shops with carvings from olive wood as well as other trinkets. Some shops are on Milk Grotto Street where you can watch the carving of olive wood and visit the Chapel of the Milk Grotto. Tradition says that the holy family sheltered here on the way to Egypt during the  "slaughter of the innocents".

Cross Manger Square from the Basilica to see the Peace Center, built for the year 2000 and planned as a place to promote peace, democracy, religious tolerance, and cultural diversity. It has been used for many other purposes and been trashed by the IDF on occasion. Look in and see what is there currently.

Walk up Paul VI Street to Christmas Lutheran Church. This church participates with the Washington Cathedral in the District of Columbia holding a Christmas service in Arabic and English that is broadcast on TV in the United States. (Email info@cathedral or go to the website of the National Cathedral during Advent in the United States to ascertain the date and time.) You are welcome to join the Sunday worship here and to explore the various faces of Dar al Nadwa, a center started by the pastor, Rev. Mitri Raheb. Dr. Raheb is also the author of two important books available in the United States about Palestinian Christians: Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes and The Cross in Contexts: Suffering and Redemption in Palestine (co-authored with Suzanne Watts Henderson).

The Evangelical Lutheran Bethlehem
Outside Lutheran Church

The Diyar Academy and The Dar al Kalima University College of Arts and Culture was started by Dr. Raheb. It is gearing up as a full university, including training of guides and other professionals to help welcome Christians. The program called “Bright Stars”, which includes a focus on the arts, was also begun here. This is part of a revival of the arts in the West Bank.

Christians in Bethlehem (and other towns and cities) long for visitors to recognize that there is a current Christian population as well as the holy sites. They have been a continuous presence since the founding of Christianity and want to be in communication with other Christians from around the world. A Palestinian friend from Bethlehem once confided that he cannot read the Bible or church history as something that happened someplace else. He has lived in the Bible. 

While in Bethlehem you might want to visit the Old Bethlehem Home Museum, housing the cultural heritage of women and their traditional embroidery. You can wander around town with a map looking for an olive press and the city market place in order to get a feeling for a Palestinian town. You can also meet with students at Bethlehem University (sponsored by the Vatican) and Bethlehem Bible College by arranging in advance.

The Christian Information Center can give you the times of services for these and other churches in the Bethlehem area. They can also help you arrange a visit to the University or College.

It has been commented that there is still “Room at the Inn” in Bethlehem. A list of places to stay is found in websites listed in the section “What is this all about?” 

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