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Travel Diaries: A Christmas Pilgrimage to Bethlehem of Palestine

Read Part I:

7.00pm Eastern European Time, December 24th, 2004.

We are two days until one of the greatest Tsunamis in all of recorded history hits, but we are grappling today with evil of another kind.   We are at the heart of Christian origins, where the birth of one babe sparked the greatest world movement ever to be known.  And the air is potent with violence and tension.  What would tonight hold for us?  This is no longer the little town with a placid baby.  These are the borderlands where centuries of hate have piled one upon the other.  Yet, we are gratefully ignorant of all that has happened.  We simply have come to celebrate a savior.

As day fades into night, we decide we have come too far to be shut out on account of five tickets.  Surely somebody has an extra. At least one or two of us will get in.  So we do what any sensible American might: find a monk.  There are plenty walking around.  So, we come up to the gated entrance and ask the hooded man about extra tickets.  He sizes us up and down and says, “you need to get your tickets in advance.”  “We know now.  But we have traveled around the world for this moment.  Surely there is room.”  He pauses, ponders, and then reaches into his cloak.  With a smile, he hands over three tickets. “These are extra.  But you are lucky.  You may not find any more.”  Any more!?  We are virtually in.  But, I don’t know at that moment how serious the monk is.

Hours pass and the rain grows stronger.  The women are taking shelter, trying to stay calm even though there are mostly men out now in the revelry of the evening.  That’s one thing that really surprises me.  In Muslim countries in 2004, the women mostly stay in at night while the husbands socialize throughout the town.   Mark is finding food, and Paul and I head out in search for more tickets.  We walk back to the gate and are set in to terror when we turn and see a commotion.

Our senses flare as we see a motorcade heading our way.  It is classic.  A dark car with tinted windows is coming our way.  Surrounding the vehicle we see at least fifty Muslim men shouting, pounding on the metal, running alongside.  This was it: The last Christmas in manger square.  The mob begins to erupt, the car explodes, our women are caught alone in the mob, and I shake myself back to reality.  We come to find out it is Mahmud Abbas, the soon to be President of Palestine.  Every year the Church of the Nativity saved a seat for Yasser Arafat.  He never came.  This year Arafat died.  The leading candidate comes and takes the seat.  It is a gesture of goodwill.  He gets out of his car and gets escorted in.  Now we simply have to see what this service will entail.

Mass begins at midnight and it is 11.00pm.  We have three tickets and are beginning to decide who gets to go.  But before we make that decision, we get aggressive.  “Let’s go to that gift shop,” somebody says, “ and see if the owner can help.”  Inside we are greeted with a glittering mound of nativity treasures.  The owner speaks English.  “We need two tickets.”  He grimaces,  “That’s not easy.”  “Let me make a phone call.” After a few minutes he comes back and directs us to his brother who is serving cider across the square.  Confirmation.  Another ticket.  We need one more.

The eleven o’clock hour moves by quickly with no success.  So we try our last option.  We head back to the shop owner.  “We just need one more. Do you know anyone who can get us in.”?  He pauses again, looks at us, and reaches in his vest.  He begins to unfold the most impacting moment yet. “Here is mine,” he offers.  “I live here.  I go every year. You can have my ticket.” I retort quickly, “No, no. We don’t want to do that.”  He gets firm. “You will take my ticket.  We are both Christians.”  I am shocked to hear he is a Christian.  I have no idea Christians live here. “Now go,” he says. “Doors are opening.”

We take his ticket given as a miracle on this bleak midwinter night.  We enter through the half sized, “door of humility” where only two years ago at least ten were killed during the second Palestinian Intifada.  After a short tour of the holy sites, we find our way to the Roman Catholic section of the church.  There the Mass begins in full regalia. It is a herald of the New Creation with flavors of the old paternal order wafting through the air and around the CNN cameras.  The night was supposed to be magical.  It was filled with miracles, no doubt.  But our experience became colored by what was happening to us in general.  We had been traveling for four months. And we were beginning to see Christianity and religion for what it truly is.

As we ride back to the old city, during the early hours of Christmas day, I think to myself:  violence and ashes in this world are everywhere. And so are some of the most amazing people.  Christianity as a religion has dirty hands.  In fact, followers of the child who was born in this place can conjure up the kingdom of darkness on earth, as it is in hell just as much as light as it is in heaven.  What is it that makes religion heal, and what is it that makes it destroy? I am becoming undone by these experiences.  And our mentors, if they knew what we were coming to see, may have advised us at that point to come home.  They might have told us not to explore lands further away from home, religious lands where we might get lost amidst the worlds growing economies and ancient faiths.  But, we were young and ready to explore.  And when we heard the growing news about the devastating waters rising in Asia. And when we realized we already had tickets to India next, we wanted to help at whatever level possible.


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