I’ve just come back from the Holy Land where I spent a three month sabbatical, so I was interested in an article in the current issue of ‘The Universe’ all about visiting Bethlehem.
For security reasons you are encouraged to visit Israel as part of a group. – This will certainly help you pass through the check-point as you move from the normal Israel to the Palestinian controlled areas, like Bethlehem. Yes, there are some security issues, but common sense will help you be safe. – Although being sat on a bus with an eighteen year-old holding an automatic weapon is an interesting experience; yes, I felt safe with a soldier next to me, but I did wonder about such a young person who seemed more interested in his mobile phone than anything else having charge of a lethal weapon.
Bethlehem itself, outside the Church, did seem to me a bit like Blackpool: everything is focussed on the tourist. I was constantly invited in to look at olive-wood cribs, statues, and other assorted souvenirs. If you do go in, don’t be afraid to bargain. A good opening gambit is to say that you are poor traveller and don’t have much money left, and see how far down the shop-keeper will go. A good base line is about one third of the price quoted at the start of the process. (This also works for taxi-drivers.) It doesn’t make for quick and rapid shopping but it can be fun. Outside the tourist orientated shops Bethlehem is just a small town, and I found an interesting street-market to visit, as well as a cheap barber’s shop.
The Church of the Nativity is cluttered, and I often found it crowded. This is not helped by the amount of scaffolding which is there; everything seemed be being renovated and decorated. You need to choose your time to visit: avoid mid-morning or mid-afternoon. When you reach the spot where legend has it that Jesus was born, you see nothing but a silver star under a small altar. I was greatly under-whelmed. However, the atmosphere makes up for everything and the sense of prayer there is impressive. You usually enter the Church through a very low door, dating from Crusader times, to underline the sense of humility with which you should approach the sacred space. Certainly as Christmas got nearer the sense of the importance of Bethlehem grew.
I also visited the ‘Shepherds Field’ – the place where, allegedly, the angels appeared to the shepherds. I did question the authenticity of this, but was told that there was a constant tradition for this. The little cave we were shown did have some atmosphere, but I remained sceptical.
The Universe encourages its readers to visit Bethlehem and the Holy Land in general. I endorse this. Yes, there are political difficulties, and the resolution of them seems impossible at present, given the entrenched positions of the Israelis and the Palestinians. But the Palestinian people in general need support and help, they feel discriminated against in their own country. Jesus was born to set the oppressed free. By visiting the place of his birth you may be helping in his work.