It was a chilly evening in Bethlehem. No snow, but definitely a bitter wind that made you want to seek cover.
Not long after graduating from college, I was there. Privileged to attend a Christmas Eve Mass at the 4th century Church of the Nativity, I prayed just a few feet from where “HIC DE VIRGINE MARIA JESUS CHRISTUS NATUS EST” is etched into the ancient marble floor, marking the spot where Jesus was born.
There was only one problem: the bus taking our tour group back to Jerusalem was departing immediately after the Mass. I didn’t come this far just to hurry back to a hotel, I thought.
“I’ll figure it out,” I told the quizzical bus driver, who shook his head as he sped away, leaving me in a cloud of exhaust in Manger Square. Church bells were pealing, and I went back to pray.
One’s worship acquires a certain urgency when there is no apparent means of transportation, no place to stay, and no plan. My mind raced. The hush and incense of the Mass was gone. With only a few tourists left, it seemed like someone had decided to shut the heat off. Yes, it was Christmas Eve in the City of David, but…
My ears were already freezing, and it was time to start my first-ever 6-mile walk from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. For a few bucks, I bought the only piece of clothing I could find, a black-and-white checkered male headdress, the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh, wrapped it around my neck and ears like a scarf, and set off.
Within moments of leaving the Church of the Nativity, the little town of Bethlehem took on an almost menacing edge. “How still we see thee lie” gave way to teens darting out of alleys who laughed as they lit fireworks and hurled them at my feet. Venders selling plastic statues left their stalls and trailed me for a block at a time. I was the Ugly American, I realized, as one man motioned for me to wear the keffiyeh properly over my head.
It was already midnight when I came to the checkpoint on Bethlehem’s perimeter, faked a confident nod to the Israeli soldiers, and passed by the barbed wire into a rugged expanse of hills unchanged since that first Christmas. Abandoned dogs searched for food in the ditches at the side of the dimly-lit road, which seemed unnervingly empty.
Growing up, we always spent Christmas Eve at my grandparents. We all dressed up to take part in the reenactment of Jesus’ birth, and my brothers and I fought over who would wear the best wise-man outfit. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus,” my Dad would begin, seated next to the fireplace.
As I tried to avoid eye contact with the mangy dogs, that memory of the crackling fire seemed impossibly distant. I was too intent on my next step into the gusting wind to notice the stars above or the sheep on the nearby hills. The lights of Jerusalem, with its ancient walls and Golgotha, flickered in the distance.
What I had come to celebrate in Bethlehem appeared unimportant to everyone I had seen since the Mass. “[W]hen the aged are reverently, passionately waiting / for the miraculous birth,” wrote W.H. Auden, “there always must be / Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating / On a pond at the edge of the wood.”
More indifference to the miraculous birth met me as I reached the edge of Jerusalem’s suburbs. Some Israeli teens—hanging out on street corners—yelled obscenities at me, gesturing to take off the keffiyeh, a Palestinian national symbol, after all. I stuffed it in my pocket, and the night became colder still.
On some level, each of us is the tourist who has travelled from afar to be in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Around us, “everything turns away,” as Auden noted,” “quite leisurely” from our Lord. We are Joseph, who must accept the dreadful stall. We are the wise men, who push on past those who do not specially want the birth to happen. We are Mary—an unimportant failure in the eyes of her peers—as we ponder the amazing thing we have seen.
“JESUS CHRISTUS NATUS EST.”
How calmly and leisurely our culture—and, too often, our own very hearts—turns away from the miraculous birth. How prone we are to walk dully along, right past that corner, that untidy spot in Bethlehem.
This Christmas, let us instead go in haste to find Him at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold. From there, we will make known the message told to us about this child.