Stepping Back from Bethlehem

By Phil Haslanger 12-21-2009

091221-bethlehemFor much of the world, the heart of Bethlehem is found down a narrow stairway in a small cave area under a huge church where a 14-pointed silver star marks the spot that, for at least 17 centuries, Christians have honored as the place where Jesus was born.

It is a spot that reflects so much hope and so much faith.

But you only have to take one step back to realize that even here in this sacred place, life is way more complicated than the beautiful images. Then pause again and you also can realize that part of the miracle of the Christmas story is that it has sustained hope through centuries of such complications.

That is still true in Bethlehem today -- a West Bank city under Israeli occupation, home to three Palestinian refugee camps housing some 20,000 people, a place reeling under economic hardship. Yet it is a city where people are building institutions to create a future worthy of the birth honored in this cave.

So take that first step back from the sacred place. This star inside the Church of the Nativity was installed by Roman Catholics in 1717, apparently removed by the Greek Orthodox in 1847, and replaced by the Turkish government in 1853.

The 15 lamps burning around the room are parceled out among the three branches of Christianity that control this building -- six to the Greek Orthodox, five to the Armenian Orthodox, and four to the Roman Catholics. This place that proclaims peace on earth to all people of goodwill reflects hard-fought divisions even among the followers of Jesus.

Now take a few more steps back. In 2002, this Church of the Nativity was the scene of a 52-day standoff between Palestinian militants who took refuge in the church and the Israeli army that had launched a major military operation in Bethlehem.

That was only the latest conflict to swirl around this building; it was built in the early 300s, burned down in a war in 529, rebuilt by 565, captured by Persians in 614, Muslim Arabs in 637, Christian Crusaders in 1099. Around 1300 the Egyptians took control of Bethlehem; in 1516 the Ottoman Turks took over; in 1920, the British; in 1948, the Jordanians; and in 1967, Israel.

Yet in the midst of that complicated history, people are creating a future that reflects the glow of the star far more than the smoke of conflict.

On a hill looking out over Bethlehem, the Dar Al-Kalima Health and Wellness Center not only deals with the physical needs of both Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem, but also is creating new opportunities for young women in a patriarchal society and providing social networks for older citizens who have been trapped by isolation.

Next door, the Dar Al-Kalima School educates Christian and Muslim children not only on basic skills, but on conflict resolution techniques and about the richness of the three great faiths that share this turf -- Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

These are among a series of projects of Christmas Lutheran Church, one of many places in Bethlehem trying to make the hope engendered in that cave with the star into a reality in the lives of the people of contemporary Bethlehem.

These are not the scenes you will see on Christmas cards this month, but they are the embodiment of that birth 2,000 years ago.

Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg. He was in Bethlehem last month.

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