Canadian Anglicans visit the city of Christ’s birth in a tension-fraught time
For the past quarter-century, Canon Richard LeSueur, who lectured at St. George’s College in Jerusalem in the early 1990s, has been returning to the Holy Land for one month almost every year to teach or lead pilgrimages.
There’s something he often says to groups of westerners when he first guides them into Bethlehem for Christmas: “I can’t show you the Bethlehem you have imagined, because it doesn’t exist.”
Many of us who have grown up in Canada and other Western countries imagine Bethlehem as an oasis of peace and calm—the feelings we like to associate with Christmas Eve, and those evoked by pageants and carols like “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” But this Bethlehem of our imagination could hardly be further from the reality of the place—in Jesus’s time and our own, say LeSueur and other Canadian Anglicans who have visited the place more times than they can count.
“I’ll honestly say this: You almost crave the Western view of Bethlehem, at times, in Bethlehem,” says John Organ, bishop of the diocese of Western Newfoundland. Organ had visited the city several times already before serving from 2012 to 2015 as chaplain to bishop of the diocese of Jerusalem Suheil Dawani, now also primate of the province of Jerusalem and the Middle East.
“You almost want the Christmas card of Bethlehem with the star, and the stillness, and the animals, and Mary and Joseph, and everything is just lovely,” Organ says. “It’s all of that, but it was in the context of much more intensity—and that intensity remains.”
Deborah Neal, who served as Dawani’s executive assistant from 2011 to 2013, took countless visitors to and from Bethlehem during those two years, and remembers the tension that pervaded the place because of the unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
“You get this juxtaposition of, it’s Christmas…and God is being born into this land, and yet all you see while you’re driving through the checkpoint is all the security, with a lot of weapons,” says Neal, who is now office administrator at the Lutheran Church of the Cross in Victoria, B.C. “On the one hand you get this sense of anticipation of joy, but also this sense of being in the middle of an occupied land.”
Bethlehem today is not a peaceful place at all, but one that feels on high alert, Organ says—as it would have in Jesus’s time also. The Holy Land at the time of Christ’s birth was a “client kingdom” or satellite of Rome; in 6 A.D. it was actually made a Roman province. In those days there would have been an intense resentment of Roman occupation, plus a “fever pitch” of excitement about the expected coming of the Messiah, he says.
Add to that, LeSueur says, the cruelty—known throughout the empire—of the “brilliant, paranoid, ruthless” Herod the Great, appointed king of Judea by the Roman senate.
The biblical account of the Massacre of the Innocents, according to which Herod had all the male babies in Bethlehem killed, attests to the great vulnerability of the powerless in every era, Organ says.
“Whether it’s literally true or not, I think there’s a truth there, that innocence is often slaughtered for power,” he says. “So it can be a dangerous place. And I think it was for our Lord.”
Bethlehem, which has a population of about 25,000, lies about 8 km to the south of Jerusalem. It’s in the West Bank, a predominantly Palestinian territory captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and partly settled by Israelis in the decades since. Following the 1993 Oslo Accords, the West Bank has been divided into a complex patchwork of zones. Most of it is under full Israeli control; some—including Bethlehem—is controlled by the Palestinian Authority; and the rest is jointly controlled.
Running between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is the West Bank Barrier, a wall in and around the West Bank built by Israel in the years since 2002, partway through the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising of 2000-2005.
The barrier, which pilgrims to Bethlehem must cross on the way from Jerusalem, is a particularly strong reminder of the tensions that pervade the city and region, the three Canadian Anglicans say.
To approach the wall and see it stretch “from horizon to horizon” can be an emotional experience, LeSueur says.
“It’s really a ghastly, shocking reminder of the failure to find peace in the land where the Prince of Peace was born. So you weep before you get to Bethlehem,” he says.
The pilgrims he guides to the city will often look on the wall in shocked silence.
It’s a massive structure, Organ says, with towers and soldiers keeping watch in them. Visitors must pass through a series of tunnels through the wall to enter the city; it feels like entering a prison, he says.
Passing through the wall is nerve-wracking, adds Neal, because it involves going underneath a kind of grille, on top of which soldiers are posted.
“The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] will be walking above you, and they’re armed and they’re looking down on you, so it’s very intimidating and scary,” she says. Passing through the checkpoint takes anywhere from under half an hour to an hour or so, Neal adds.
Visiting the Holy Land, LeSueur says, often involves such moments. Along with glimpsing the magnificence of Jerusalem and the places where Jesus and his disciples walked, “you’re constantly bumping into the political realities of the land itself.”
The Western image of Christmas in Bethlehem is wrong in other ways, he says. For one thing, it tends not to take into account the cold, rainy weather that the hill country around Jerusalem is prone to in wintertime.
“I have never been to a Christmas Eve service in Bethlehem where I’m not drenching wet and the wind is strong and everybody is shivering because there is no double-pane and insulation,” he says.
Moreover, while it’s common to see in the Christmas cards and illustrated Bibles of Western countries the Holy Family gathered inside a wooden stable, wood is actually quite scarce in the Holy Land, and most buildings are made of stone. In any case, it’s much more likely that Jesus was born in one of the thousands of natural limestone caves that dot the ridge on which Bethlehem lies, and into which shepherds over the millennia have often taken their animals for shelter, LeSueur says.
Of the four Gospels, only Matthew and Luke mention Jesus being born in Bethlehem; John does not mention his birthplace or where he grew up, and Mark says only that he came from Nazareth. Matthew does not mention the details of Christ’s birth; with respect to where in Bethlehem he was born, Luke says only (Luke 2:7) that Mary “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, which has undergone numerous reconstructions and renovations since it was first built by Constantine the Great around 330 A.D., contains underneath it a cave where local tradition has it that Jesus was born.
The early Christian bishop and writer Eusebius of Caesarea, LeSueur notes, once said that the Holy Land itself is a fifth Gospel, because only by encountering it can Christians truly appreciate the other four. And LeSueur, Organ and Neal all say that visiting Bethlehem can be intensely memorable.
In Bethlehem at Christmastime, says Neal, “there’s many, many people, and you kind of have to find your own quiet in it. But just being there with people acknowledging the reason they’re there because they’re celebrating something they so profoundly believe in is striking—it warms your heart.”
All three, too, say that Anglicans making pilgrimages to Bethlehem are likely to especially appreciate an annual Christmas Eve service by Dawani at a shepherds’ cave in Bayt Sahur, just outside Bethlehem.
“We would go there as families, and we’d light a fire in the fire pit and the children would gather round and we’d read the scripture and sing the songs, and it was very, very meaningful,” LeSueur recalls.
Later in the evening, Anglicans in Bethlehem will typically proceed to the Church of the Nativity, in a side chapel of which the Anglican archbishop will give another service, which has recently been attended by dignitaries including Mahmoud Abbas, president of the State of Palestine. For Anglicans, the evening typically concludes with everyone returning to Jerusalem for midnight mass at St. George’s Cathedral.
Despite the tension, Organ says, Canadian Anglicans should not feel afraid of visiting, and they can be confident of a well-organized trip if they travel with the Anglican contingent from Jerusalem. And even in the real Bethlehem, he says, they may find they can discern a kind of peace amidst the tension—and be changed by it.
“Militarism, heightened police security, danger—it’s all there, and yet you get inside the Church [of the Nativity], and as you go down into the lower level, where they marked the manger scene where Christ was born, it’s humble—it’s humble, humble, humble,” he says.
“And yet full of reverence, of devotion. And it’s powerful.”