Thursday, December 15, 2011

“O Little Town of Bethlehem”

The birthplace of Christ (Wikipedia)
There are only 10 days left to Christmas. Having given up on the commercial side of the holy day, my thoughts at this time of year often turn to the birthplace and Bethlehem…
It is like going back in time, when the merriment was simple and all about rejoicing in prayer and the birth of Christ. It was a time when we visited my paternal grandmother, Teta Rose, and my paternal relatives in the town where Jesus was born.

With Asma and Mom at the Grotto of the Nativity
This year the memories came flooding back when my sister Asma sent me our picture standing with mom Vicky at the entrance to the Grotto of the Nativity. By coincidence, my cousin Peter Hazou emailed me a set of pictures of Teta Rose (taken a couple of years before her death in 1979) and my Aunt Mary, with whom he spent Christmas in 1986 at the family home in Bethlehem. So many snapshots to share...

Teta Rose
Built over the birthplace of Jesus, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously open churches in the world.

To assimilate this as a child was magical. Visiting my grandmother and the extended family in Bethlehem was like a life-size, unbroken reunion of relatives and friends to the backdrop of this biblical site.

Aunt Mary at the stone house in Bethlehem..
...and her teapot
Aunt Mary making Shish Barak
Granny’s stone house was on the second floor. It had a roof extension where we had breakfast in spring and summertime while waiting for farmers to pass by with basket-loads of whatever fresh produce was in season and was just picked from the fields.

Running around the old and winding alleyways of Bethlehem was like playing hide-and-seek. When I got lost, which happened so often, I would stop at one of the bijou grocery or retail shops, tell them my name and wait for someone to guide me back home.

My cousin Peter Hazou
On our last trip before the 1967 Six-Day War, it was as though my parents knew that it might be our last vacation there for a while. So we toured all the landmarks in the Holy Land, among them the Church of the Nativity.

The church, on Manger Square, is about eight kilometers (five miles) from Jerusalem. It is built over a grotto where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. 

Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine I, started the groundbreaking work on the first basilica. Construction went ahead in 327 under the supervision of Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem in 327 and was completed in 333.

The large fortress-like exterior of the church stands as a testament to its turbulent history. For centuries, it was one of the most fought over holy places, seized and defended by a succession of armies -- including Muslim and Crusader forces. It is now controlled jointly by three Christian denominations: the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church.

The present building, the oldest church in Palestine, was reconstructed in the 6th Century by Emperor Justinian (527-565) and further repaired by the Crusaders.

The Door of Humility
You enter the church through a small rectangular entrance known as the Door of Humility. For a child it was fun to have a door your size and watch all the grown-ups bend over to enter. It was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters, and to force even the most important visitors to dismount from their horse as they entered the holy place. The doorway was reduced from an earlier Crusader doorway, the pointed arch of which can still be seen above the current door. 

The Silver Star: Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est
The Altar of the Nativity sits below a silver and gold chandelier. Stairways on either side of the main altar lead to a grotto. A fourteen-point Silver Star embedded in white marble marks the birthplace of Christ. An inscription reads, Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est ("Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary"). Fifteen lamps burn around the spot -- six belong to the Greeks, five to the Armenians and four to the Latins. It is hard not to be touched by the view of the Silver Star and let your mind travel to those ancient times. And that is where our picture was taken.

Elvis Presley sings "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

The altar is denominationally neutral, although it features mostly Armenian Apostolic influences. Another altar in the Grotto, which is maintained by the Roman Catholics, marks the site where traditionally Mary laid the newborn Baby Jesus in the manger.

The grotto is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church. The traditional midnight mass celebrated on Christmas Eve is held in St. Catherine's, the Roman Catholic Church next door to the Church of the Nativity. 

It is in Manger Square, a large courtyard in front of the Church, where we would gather alongside the crowds on Christmas Eve to sing carols and await Christmas Midnight Mass.

President Bill Clinton in Bethlehem
On December 15, 1998, then President Bill Clinton, wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea accompanied Palestinian leader Yaser Arafat and his wife Suha on a tour of the Church of the Nativity. They then joined a Palestinian children's choir in singing a hymn in Manger Square against the backdrop of a towering Christmas tree. The Clintons each placed a Christmas ornament -- a heart, a bell and a large gold ball -- on the tree.
Would I recognize Bethlehem after all these years? Santa seems lost!
A UNESCO report in 1997 found that, because of water leaking from the roof, most of the mosaics and paintings, some dating from Byzantine times, had been "damaged beyond repair."

The World Monuments Fund placed the basilica on the 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites. It stated: “The present state of the church is worrying. Many roof timbers are rotting, and have not been replaced since the 19th century. The rainwater that seeps into the building not only accelerates the rotting of the wood and damages the structural integrity of the building, but also damages the 12th-century wall mosaics and paintings. The influx of water also means that there is an ever-present chance of an electrical fire…”

Even back in 1461, a visitor wrote: "In the roof the timbers that were constructed in ancient times are rotting, and this structure is falling daily into ruin.”

The memories come flooding back while looking at all these pictures and each time I hear the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – let alone a yearning to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem once again.