It's December 23rd in Bethlehem and the last touches are being made for Christmas celebrations at Bethlehem's Manger Square.
In between children's Christmas programs, I found time for a short visit to Nativity Church. If there is a perfect day to visit this historic shrine representing the place of Jesus' birth, it is the day before Christmas Eve. Our visits this fall were always chaotic with scaffolding occupying center place, repairing a leaking roof, and with record breaking crowds of visitors lining up to see the birth grotto. Surprise of surprises, on Dec, 23 I walked into a totally empty Nativity church with the scaffolding removed for Christmas and no tourists in sight. In need of a quiet place away from the hustle and bustle of the season, I made my way to Jerome's grotto, the cave where the Biblical Scholar from Rome found home when coming to Bethlehem later in his life (I have a personal attachment there). There were no interuptions because, as I would discover, the caretakers of St Catherines Church had closed the gates and chained off the grottos as they were completing a final church cleaning for tomorrow's midnight mass. So there is nothing like having the historic grottos to oneself for quiet meditation the day before Christmas Eve.
Later I returned to Nativity Church, still empty of visitors--though this photo was taken a bit later when several men had congregated near the sanctuary just above the nativity grotto.
The most memorable photo I didn't take
If you want to see photos of adorable children from Christmas programs, scroll down to end. I could not stop myself from taking dozens-- maybe hundreds of snapshots of Palestinian children who embody the hope of Christmases future.
Yet sometimes the most meaningful photo is the one not taken. The moment seems so sacred, that it would be an act of idolatry to capture such a visual image in a photograph.
When I returned upstairs to the 1500 year old Nativity church, I found myself sharing that sacred space with four young women, probably in their late teens. One sat on the empty steps leading up to the sanctuary while another snapped her photo and then a second moved into place. Then a sudden pause as they spied me standing among the columns on the perimeter-- me, just another visitor, but me wearing my black suit and clerical collar, me, as far as they were concerned, a representative of the religious establishment. After they offered an "Are we going to be in trouble for this?" look, I responded with a smile and nodded for them to continue. Quickly, the third young woman took her place sitting on the step, posing for the camera, but looking my way hestitating. I nodded to continue. Then the fourth followed suit.
I decided to walk over to the photographer. Four figures froze where they stood, offering a worried look.
"If the four of you like, I can take your photo with all four of you together," I volunteered.
A sign of relief. Then the four of them took a pose before the altar, the cross, the sacred space recognized through the ages by Christians, while I captured a digital memory for their visit on this Dec. 23, when my visit just happened to intersect with theirs.
Did I mention that the four young women were Muslim? Dressed in bluejeans and headscarfs they thanked me. "Merry Christmas!" each one said in turn.
"And Merry Christmas to you!" I said knowing the importance of the Prophet Isa to their faith and the significance of the virgin birth for them. Then I added, "You are always welcome here!"
If I were quicker with my wit, I might have said, "There's always room in the inn." or something like that. But a simple welcome sufficed. Their smiles and nods of appreciation confirmed for me that this is what Christian witness is all about in the 21st century.
I had been tempted for a moment to reach into my pocket for my own camera to take one more photo. Yet I sensed that would have transgressed the boundaries of sacred and profane. The ancients had this notion that sacred encounters are not to be trivialized by images that were only limiting in scope. In our brief encounter in the Church of the Nativity, these four young women and I shared a sacred moment--a recognition of God in the other. A photograph could never capture that. But memories are another thing.
Leaving Nativity Church, a group of Muslim school girls prepare to enter. Two young Muslim women pause for the camera. "We feel welcome here!"
December 18 simulcast
Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.
Member of Bethlehem children's choir below watching Anglican Bishop in Washington D.C.
Jerusalem Christmas Traditions
Living in a multicultural context, the preparations for Christmas are an adventure in a smorgasbord of traditions.
The Swedish Theological Institute in West Jerusalem is one of the nineteenth-century architectural gems. Swedish Lutherans come for short courses. Most Sundays we have visitors from Sweden at our English-language worship.
The Swedish Institute hosted their annual Santa Lucia Day Celebration on December 13.
Santa Lucia Day
On the Saturday before Santa Lucia day, our Danish close friend and neighbor, Susanne Brown, hosted a day of Scandanavian baking, beginning with a festive breakfast.
A Full day of baking.
a Feast for the eyes.
St. Barbara's Day
Among Arab Christians a popular celebration is St. Barbara's Day-- December 4.
Barbara was a third century martyr from Lebanon.
Its's common in Lebanon, and to some degree in Jerusalem, for children to dress up and go to their neighbors asking for sweets.
Our Arab Pastor, Ibrahim Azar, his wife Nahila, three daughters invited us to their home for the celebrations.
Lutheran Kindergarten -- Mount of Olives
Hope Lutheran School in Ramallah
Of our students in the Ramallah Lutheran School, 80 % are Muslim
Fred & Gloria Strickert