Friday, 21 September 2012

The Holy Land 2: Bethlehem

Bethlehem, as many of you will know, is one of the largest Palestinian territories, walled off from Jerusalem which it borders. I was surprised at how the suburbs of Jerusalem suddenly turned into the threshold of the town of the nativity as we drove along. The infamous wall is very imposing, and manned by young Israeli guards – all Israelis are required to do military service for a time. We usually got through the checkpoints without any fuss, though the Palestinians who have permission to come out of Bethlehem (for work, perhaps) are sometimes detained for hours before they are allowed to pass through. The Palestinian side of the wall is covered with graffiti recording the bitter tensions between Palestine and Israel. We should pray for an end to these tensions, and make an effort to support the Palestinian Christian population, which has been haemorrhaging in recent decades as many emigrate from their homeland. Most of the population seem to be Muslim, and I was awoken a few mornings by the imam’s call to prayer at 4.30 am...

As in Jerusalem, the Basilica of the Nativity is used by different ancient Christian traditions, with the Greek Orthodox once again appearing to have the biggest privileges in the original site. (The Church of St Catherine which adjoins the ancient basilica is where the Catholics worship, and it is the church in which Midnight Mass from Bethlehem is televised.) “Noble simplicity” doesn’t seem to be an architectural/ liturgical phenomenon with which the Orthodox are enamoured. I was amused at how there were gigantic Christmas baubles hanging all over the chapel! After all – unlike the White Witch’s Narnia – it’s always Christmas in Bethlehem! The site of the basilica dates back to the time of Constantine, who built a church over the cave which is believed to be the place of Jesus’ birth. This allegedly makes it the oldest continuous church in the world. But the present building is Byzantine in origin. The medieval Crusaders added to it, as they did many other churches in the Holy Land.

The interior, minus the Christmas baubles

One interesting change over time is the gradual reduction of the size of the front entrance. Originally a huge door, it got smaller and smaller as there was more need to defend the Church from invading horsemen. But this historical incident gives way to a spiritual interpretation. We can only enter into the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation by becoming small and humble ourselves, by becoming “poor in spirit”, like Mary and Joseph, or like St Therese in more recent times...

"The Little Way"

As well as venerating the cave of the Nativity beneath the sanctuary, we got to celebrate Mass in another cave under the church very near the old burial site of St Jerome, the Scripture scholar who translated the Bible into Latin in the 4th century. His body is now in St Maria Maggiore in Rome, as is the manger. So I prayed for all Scripture scholars, and for a new flourishing of the traditional four-fold sense of Scripture, not just the historical-critical method (more on that some other time).

The site of the Nativity
Here is a clip of an Armenian liturgy taking place in their side chapel in the basilica, very similar to one I witnessed there, only the one I saw was much more spendid, and the priest was wearing a blue crown while the cantors/ servers/ deacons (?) were wearing blue copes. Come to think of it, it might have been their celebration of the Assumption, which is later than ours.

More accounts of my adventures to follow!


EA Seminarians said...

The Assumption is a transferable feast in the Armenian Rite, related, like the other transferable feasts, to the date of Easter. It actually fell earlier than the Roman reckoning of the Assumption this year, but you travelled to Bethlehem during the season (or tabernacle) of the Assumption, which is presumably what you experienced, though blue is used rather a lot as a 'feature' colour in that rite.

The 'cope' is not a cope at all, but the principal 'Massing' vestment, as Latins would say. One can see the similarities with the Antiochene and Syriac vestments, and also notice, consequently, that the Byzantine are an odd blend of east and west. The 'crown' is a clerical vestment which is almost analagous to a Roman biretta; bishops wear Latin mitres, rather than Byzantine mitres.

The astute observer will notice the blend of Antiochene, Syriac, and Roman rites in the Armenian.


Anonymous said...

This is so sad. When I was in Israel in 1983, Bethlehem was easily accessible by public transportation--no wall, no checkpoints. And I can easily believe that 9 of ten portions of sorrow were awarded to Jerusalem. Thank you for the pictures and the report. I hope you walked the stations of the cross on Friday night.

Anonymous said...

This is very sad; when I was in Israel in 1983 public buses ran to Bethlehem, there was no wall, no checkpoints. It's easy to believe that Jerusalem received 9 portions of sorrow. I just hope that people of decency and goodwill prevail.