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Conversations on the Middle East Part 4: O little town of Bethlehem

January 6, 2011
Today is January 6th, and I am thinking of the three wise men. And the three wise men make me think of distances. I was always intrigued about distances in Israel. When I read that Mary and Joseph walked from Nazareth to Bethlehem, or that Mary rode on a donkey, it’s hard to appreciate how long that took. Well, it’s really not that far.
As many of you know, last September I was part of a delegation of Catholic journalists that traveled to the Holy Land, sponsored by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which is the Vatican agency that oversees pontifical missions in the Middle East. We were in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. We stayed in Jerusalem and drove up to the Galilee, to Haifa, to Ramallah and of course, one day we went into Bethlehem. The drive from Jerusalem to Nazareth is just over an hour.
When I read about the wise men that were following the star, it’s also hard to imagine – well, first, how do you follow a star? It can point to a direction, but not to an exact location, can it? Which is why the Magi, following the star, ended up in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is not far from Bethlehem.
When you drive south from Jerusalem, you can’t really tell that you’ve come to the end of the city – today, it’s all built up. You drive straight through communities, neighbourhoods and subdivisions, right into the West Bank. Bethlehem is sort of like Hamilton to Toronto, or Abbotsford to Vancouver. Or even like Kemptville to Ottawa. Maybe the distance is more like Sherbrooke to Montreal. You get the picture.
As you arrive in the West Bank, it is impossible not to notice the security fence, or barrier. It is a 10 metre high wall. It separates Bethlehem and the West Bank from Israel. We had heard many stories about how hard it is to cross through the barrier and the check points – sometimes people are delayed for hours. But on this day, we had no delays. We drove right through and there it was…
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by…
Bethlehem has changed a bit in the last 2000 years, but despite this “occupation” I saw a vibrant town. There are stores and shops, restaurants; people riding in cabs and driving SUVs. There are delivery trucks and Coca Cola signs. People live here and the place is alive – there is no dreamless sleep here.
Our first stop was the Ephphetha Institute, run by the Sisters of St. Dorothy of the Sacred Heart.
This school is normal in every sense. There are children from pre-school age, all the way to grade 12. They all learn reading and writing. They learn math and history. They learn English. And all of them have some degree of hearing-impairment.
Sr. Lara took us around and explained that even though the school is run by Catholic sisters, most of the children are Muslim. Many of the teachers are Muslim, as well.
I found it surprising that there would be so many hearing-impaired children in Bethlehem. One reason is marriage between cousins, which increases the likelihood of children being born with disabilities.
The children do not learn sign language. It would be too hard for them to function in a Palestinian/Israeli society with only sign language – instead, all wear hearing aids or cochlear implants and they learn to read lips. In fact, had I not known, I could not have been able to tell that the students we met had a hearing impairment.
What struck me the most was their joy. I could not stop thinking of the verse:
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
These children's ears may not hear His coming and their world may be silent, but through the work of Sr. Lara and her Sisters, the dear Christ most definitely enters in.
While there are many disabled children in Bethlehem, there are also many abandoned children.  Our next stop, up the street was at "La Crèche," The Orphanage of the Holy Family, where Sr. Sophie takes as many abandoned children as she can.
Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head
For the many children who do not have a crib or a bed, Sr. Sophie provides a place for them to lay down their sweet heads. It was inspiring to be there. Our group was happy to spend some time on the floor playing with the children. Sr. Sophie and her staff feed and clothe the children. They give them a home, but nothing is better than a new group of playmates.
2000 years ago, there was another baby that was lying in a different crèche not too far away from this place. Today, Sr. Sophie has found a way to honour that baby by honouring and caring for today’s abandoned children of Bethlehem.
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there
Just up the hill from the orphanage is Bethlehem University. We’ve written a lot about BU and there is more to come in a documentary by Kris Dmytrenko. At the university I had a moving conversation with two students, Ellen and Christina. They spent quite a bit of time telling me about the difficulties for mobility that the security wall has caused. They told me about their dreams – Ellen wants to be a travel agent. I was intrigued by this. But people in Bethlehem still manage to travel and the tourism industry is not doing badly in Bethlehem. I asked her how is it possible that they live, work and study inside this wall, which some say is like a prison. She said, “We do. That’s our life.” That is their life. And they make the best of it. In many ways, had I not known about all the political issues between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and had I not seen the Wall, this place would have looked to me just like any university campus anywhere.
That night, as we had a spectacular dinner at a local restaurant in Beit Sahour, overlooking the shepherd’s fields, I spoke with Gabi Khando, who works for Pontifical Missions and lives in Bethlehem. Gabi loves his town. Bethlehem means, “beit-lehem,” house of bread. And here we were, breaking bread together (literally: they love their pita and hummus or baba ganoush!) and drinking Palestinian Taybeh Beer.
I could not help thinking that this place that was filled with God 2000 years ago was still full of God. This place has had the faithful coming, joyfully and triumphantly, for the last 2000 years. They’ve been coming to Bethlehem, in search of the God, who is our daily bread.
Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ Whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
Today and throughout this coming week, when many Christians in Bethlehem are celebrating the Feast of the Nativity, and while we are thinking of the Epiphany, let us worship with a Gloria, for today is born for us, in the city of David, the Saviour, the Messiah, the Christ, our Lord. We may not find him in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger; we may not even find him in the Church of the Nativity. But we will find him, heralded by a star: A star that will guide us to the disabled and abandoned children, to the young people who still have dreams, and to the courageous men and women who have dedicated their lives to giving glory to God on high and to bringing peace to his people on earth. And we pray for peace in Palestine and Israel.
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"
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