An afternoon in Bethlehem

Bethlehem is a word that is often repeated at Christmas time. “And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child,” says the Gospel of St. Luke.

This small town located now in the state of Palestine, only 5.5, kilometers from Jerusalem, currently has 25,000 inhabitants, approximately half of them Muslim and half Christian. I was there almost two months ago. I had always wanted to visit that city so mentioned in famous songs (“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing), in poems, and Christmas antiphons.

A city represented in great works of art, and also in small mangers made in the warmth of so many homes (in Spain, by the way, the mangers are called Bethlehem). I always thought that this dream would only be a utopia because of the great geographical distance and the difficult situation of the states of Israel and Palestine.

Even so I was able to spend an afternoon in Bethlehem. The first place I visited was the Shepherds’ Field. It was there that an angel appeared to some shepherds who were watching over their flock at night, to say: “Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”, as is mention in the Gospel of St. Luke.

These stories, written so many times in the Bible and in so many Christmas stories, became palpable. The sensation of being in the place where the simplest people received the best news – the arrival of the expected Messiah and where their simplicity allowed them to hurry to the place where the child was born – was beautiful and touching.

From the Shepherds field, the hill where the city of Bethlehem is located can be seen, and the Basilica of the Nativity stands out. This place was built by the order of Emperor Constantine in 333 and is located where tradition says Jesus was born. The church itself has a certain charm to it, its significance made all the more profound knowing that 2,000 years ago, this place was a simple stable where Mary and Joseph stayed because they found a warm welcome in Bethlehem and it was there where “she (the Virgin Mary), gave birth to a son, her first-born”.

Some call it the temple of ecumenism because it contains three Christian denominations: Catholic, Greco-Orthodox and Armenian-Orthodox. Jesus, born in a manger, is still able to unify today what religious differences separate.

The little streets of Bethlehem are full of commerce. There the few Christians manage to sell their handicrafts and religious ornaments to live off them. I also found some Muslims working in these little shops and I was glad to see the brotherhood among the simpler representatives of both creeds.

Bethlehem takes on a special importance at Christmas time. It brings you closer to the humanity and historicity of the Child Jesus who, in his birth, as the carol “O Holy Night” says: He taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace.

COMING UP: Christmas and the divine proximity

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

In October 2001 I had a long conversation with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It was but weeks after 9/11; a new century and millennium were opening before us; and I wanted to get Ratzinger’s view on the main issues for the Church and for theology in the twenty-first century.

The man who would become Pope Benedict XVI was deeply concerned about the moral relativism he thought was corroding the West, and located its roots in western high culture’s refusal to say that anything was “the truth,” full stop. This was a serious problem. For when there is only “your truth” and “my truth,” there is no firm cultural foundation for society, for democracy, or for living nobly and happily.

Then Ratzinger turned to Christology, the Church’s reflection on the person and mission of Jesus Christ. Both the Church and the world were suffering from a “diminishing Christ,” he suggested. Some wanted a less assertive Christology to avoid conflict with other world religions. Some wanted to make Jesus “one of the illuminators of God,” but not the unique, saving Son of God. Both these interpretations were deeply problematic, the cardinal continued, because they pushed God farther and farther away from humanity.

“If Jesus is not the Son of God,” Cardinal Ratzinger said, “then God really is at a great distance from us.” So perhaps the chilling sense of the absence of God evident throughout much of the western world was “a product of the absence of Jesus Christ,” who is not just moral exemplar but Savior, Lord, and God-with-us – “Emmanuel.” On the other hand, “if we see this Jesus” born for us and crucified for us, “then we have a much more precise idea of God, who God is, and what God does.”

Then the cardinal connected the dots to 9/11. A “more precise” idea of God, gained through an experience of God-with-us, was not only important for the Church and its evangelical mission. It was also “crucial for the dialogue with the Islamic world, which really is about the question, who is God?”

Fifteen years later, that typically brilliant Ratzingerian analysis seems even more salient – and not just in terms of whatever dialogue may be possible with Islam, but in terms of us.

Loneliness is the modern predicament and it’s getting worse. I was recently in New York, and as walking is the only way get around traffic-choked Manhattan, I hoofed it. And what powerfully struck me is how isolated the denizens of the Concrete Jungle are – and are by choice. For the vast majority of people you bump into (sometimes literally) on the sidewalks of New York are living inside their own reality: Pod World, I started calling it when the iPod was all the rage. Today, there are very few New York pedestrians to be found without ear buds of some sort stuck into their heads. The iPod is ancient history, but the buds are still there, and so is the isolation.

Social media is no antidote to this isolation, for tweets or Facebook postings (not to mention comment threads beneath online articles) are not substitutes for real conversation. In many cases, I fear, they intensify the loneliness and the self-absorption from which it often springs.

Christmas reminds us what Christians have to say to this pervasive loneliness. We say “God is with us,” as throughout the Christmas season we celebrate the divine answer to the Advent plea, “O come, o come Emmanuel.” That plea did not go unrequited. We see the answer to it in the crèches in our homes. God is with us, not in awe and majesty, but in that most accessible of human forms, the baby who reaches out for our embrace.

God is Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the midst of our lives, not outside them. A few years ago I began collecting Fontanini crèche figures, and while the display is now as big as it’s going to get, there’s a reason why the manger in our crèche is surrounded by dozens of figures: decoratively speaking, that’s the best way to express my conviction that the Lord of history came into history to redeem history in the midst of history.

He is Emmanuel. He is God-with-us. We are not alone.

Merry Christmas.