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.