Last Wednesday our international group of priests piled onto the autobus and made our way down to Bethlehem. Recall, however, that this involves crossing an international boundary--from Israeli territory to that controlled by the Palestinian Authority. As it happened, the guards waived us through.
While most of the trip was downhill, as we got into the environs of Bethlehem, we began climbing again. The city of Bethlehem is part of a cluster of several communities--all Arab, and mostly Muslim. (You do realize, dear reader, that "Arab" and "Muslim" are not synonyms? This is not well understood by many Americans.) Bethlehem itself has traditionally been majority Christian; however, in recent years, the Christians have become a minority. Somewhere, however, I saw that the law requires the mayor to be Christian.
We stayed at a lovely guest house run by Christians. Although no one said so explicitly, it seems all the employees are Christians. Other than Bethlehem University across the street, and orphanage next door, our guest house was the nicest building I saw. The more modern commercial district--a couple of blocks away--was kind of shabby, and a lot of the housing looked pretty humble. I suppose there are wealthy Palestinians (apart from the politicians, who are always well fed), but we haven't seen many of them. But our quarters, while not fancy, were quite clean and comfortable.
We made a visit right away to the Church of the Nativity, which faces Manger Square. Towering over the square was...a Christmas Tree. In many places, we saw Christmas decorations, even though it was the third week of January. Even if we Latins were finished with Christmas, not all Christians are. So I call this the Land of Perpetual Christmas.
If you come here, dear pilgrim, fortify yourself for endless attention from the street vendors. There will never be a Rosary shortage, judging by what I saw--nor is there any shortage of olive wood from which to make them. I don't like to be rude, especially in a foreign setting, yet one must be very firm. Be careful that you don't have an open hand, or else someone will "give" you something. So: aiming at firmness yet with courtesy, I kept my free hand over my heart (while carrying my satchel--with my alb and stole for Mass), and kept repeating, "no thank you." And I kept moving. One little boy, trying to sell me--what else?--rosaries, responded in a loud sing-song, "no tha-a-ank you!" It might have been meant to be rude, but it just made me laugh.
You have to use your imagination now, because this will be hard to describe. Everything about this picture: the great -- and ancient -- church, positioned over the site where our Lord was born, facing a public square, with a giant Christmas tree, plus shops and restaurants as you might imagine; cobblestone streets; people milling about, with a great variety of attire; and across the square, a prominent minaret rising above a boxy building I assumed was a mosque; and narrow streets going off in various directions.
You have the picture? And no doubt, you are imagining the great basilica as an imposing, elegant edifice? You would be mistaken.
It is certainly large; yet it wasn't particularly elegant. A hulking, old building, clearly a product of various stages of construction; it seemed hard to discern a "front." In fact, the door by which we entered--more or less the front--was actually a rather small square. According to our guide, this entrance was once much grander--you could see the outline of a traditional Gothic arch--but the Muslim overlords had a habit of riding into the church on horseback. So whoever had the church at that time blocked up most of the entrance to stop that. And so it remains.
In fact, in this and other holy places, many things remain almost completely unchanged since 1852. It was that year when the Ottoman Sultan laid down a "status quo"--i.e., a set of regulations about how the quarrelsome Christians in the Holy Land were to work with each other at the various holy sites. With the Sultan long gone, there is no one to revise the "status quo"--so the patchwork of rules and privileges stands as it was then.
This is both sad and comic. From time to time fights will break out between monks of competing Christian groups; a recent contretemps came when a monk -- in the Holy Sepulcher -- was cleaning outside his section. Why does this matter? Because if I clean a section, it might imply that section belongs to me. So it goes.
So in the case of this shrine where our Lord was born, there was no agreement about repairing the roof for quite awhile. Apparently, however, the situation become intolerable, and the Palestinian government was in the process of repairing it when we arrived.
I won't describe all I might about the church -- you can find that on your own -- except to say that it wasn't as attractive as one might hope. The interior walls were mostly bare, the ancient mosaics having mostly come down. The great columns were covered, and scaffolding was overhead. The sanctuary and altar area were unobstructed.
The sanctuary of the church was laid out in proper Greek style. Remember, dear Romans, all this was part of the Greek Church, not Latin! So the altar itself was behind an ancient iconostasis, out of our sight. Several Greek clerics--I'm guessing monks, but who knows?--were seated in this area, and I didn't dare to approach. But I nodded with a smile and they nodded back. Ecumenism scores a point!
Above this part of the sanctuary were an amazing collection of very old, and very dusty oil lamps. To put it plainly: it was a mess. For all my fellow Catholics who lament churches being stripped bare, this is an example of what the other extreme can look like.
Perhaps you are impatient with me by now. I understand completely. "What's wrong with you, Father? You're in the very place where Jesus was born, and this is what you notice?" Quite right. I repent in dust and ashes! However, you must understand that we were waiting quite awhile before we could find our way to the place where we were to offer Mass.
The reason we were waiting was various bits of activity--unrelated I think--both on the right and on the left. To the right was a kind of chapel where a very large group was assembled for the liturgy. They might have been Armenian, but they weren't Latin. On the left there was another sort of chapel, where there was a fair amount of coming and going, both by monks sweeping and moving things about, while others seemed to be engaged in more sacred rituals. There were several doors, up and down, where people were going. Some of us wandered about, ever so tentatively. No one whacked me with a broom, so count that a success!
Finally it was our time to find our way to where we'd have Holy Mass. We walked around to the left and up a mysterious corridor. In fact, we emerged into a whole other church next door! Except where the ancient basilica dated way back--some sections to the time of Constantine--the newer church was built in the 20th century. And, boy, did it look like it! My appreciation for the crazy-quilt Greek church I'd just been looking at grew. Don't get me wrong. This newer section wasn't bad. For a parish church, it'd be pretty good (although no parish priest in the U.S. would get away with what I saw a worker do late that afternoon: putting out the votive candles to throw them away!); but for this place? Not to my taste.
At any rate, we made our way back to the sacristy; we vested, and then our group of 26 or so made our way back through the church, and down an old stone staircase with very low thresholds. I whacked my head once. This was getting interesting.
We had Mass in an ancient crypt under the church; marred somewhat by some fairly newish liturgical appointments--by which I mean not very pleasing to the eye. This was called Saint Joseph's cave, and tradition holds that this spot was where the Lord was placed after being born several feet away, around behind a wall. As often happens when you visit holy sites, you don't always get to have Mass right there, but somewhere nearby. The luck of the draw. There were several other grottoes nearby, one of which was where Saint Jerome spent many years translating the Bible into Latin. In fact, we had Mass in that very grotto the next day.
What Mass did we have here? Why Christmas Mass! Midnight Mass, in fact! That's how it is when you visit certain holy sites; with perhaps a few exceptions, whatever day it is, you observe the feast associated with that place. So when we went to the Mount of Transfiguration, we had that Mass; and thus in the place where Gabriel asked Mary to be the Mother of God, and so forth.
Did I mention that our group of priests is made up largely of English and Spanish speakers? On the first night together, we had a lottery to decide who would be the celebrant at each place, and who would be the homilist. We are doing the readings in English and Spanish, while the Mass can be in either of those languages, or in Latin. As it is, not all priests are really able to offer Mass in Latin (que lastima), but we have been trying.
After Mass, and after unvesting, we had some free time; but we were asked to return for "a procession" at noon. But my battery is running down, so I'll save that for my next entry.