Today, in the City of David, a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11)
Today was a very special day in Bethlehem. Christmas began with Midnight Mass followed by a wonderful reception with the Christian Brothers and the local community at Bethlehem University. We had a very nice mix of traditional English carols as well as some Arabic ones that I’ve become rather fond of now. After sleeping for most of the morning I made my way down to Manger Square. I was able to get into the grotto in the Church of the Nativity and kiss the star where Jesus was born. It was a little hard to envision the quietness of that first Christmas with all the people that were crowding into the cave, but it was still an amazing experience to be there at “ground zero” on Christmas Day.
As I walked the streets of Bethlehem today there were many more people out and about. It was nice to finally see a change from the normal day to day experience of Bethlehem that I’ve grown so used to in the past month. I have been waiting and waiting for “all the pilgrims” to show up. I even did my Christmas shopping early last week to “beat the rush.” However, it is somewhat sad to report that almost no tourists came. The local merchants were hoping for around 10,000, with that even being way down from previous years. However, as I walk the streets, I have seen almost no European looking faces. There were definitely more people in town yesterday and today, but they were all locals from right around Bethlehem.
You would think that Bethlehem would be the place to be on Christmas, but I think the fighting this summer caused a lot of people to stay away. One shopkeeper said that there were more Christmas lights hung this year than he can remember and yet he was very sad because no one came. I bought some nice little olive wood sculptures from some of the local Christian stores as my own kind of Christmas present to them, but it’s clear that the joy of Christmas is a bit subdued for many of the people here. It’s sad to say that the message of peace announced by the angels 2000 years ago is not at all the daily experience of people here in the Holy Land.
On a more positive note, we all got invited by a local family here to have Christmas dinner at their restaurant. It turns out that this is one of the best restaurants in Bethlehem and we had a magnificent traditional Palestinian Christmas dinner. Everyone was in such good spirits and we had a wonderful celebration. I do have to say that I found myself looking at my watch from time to time throughout the day and was thinking about what was going on back home. I thought of my family gathered on Christmas morning and the big gathering at Grandma’s house. I’ve never spent a Christmas away from Kansas and things definitely felt different this year. Yet, this was a very special Christmas and one that I will never forget.
Now, don’t forget that Christmas just started! Despite the fact that I’m sure the stores back home are getting out their Valentine’s Day candy and your neighbors threw their Christmas tree to the curb already this evening, don’t you do the same. The Advent time of waiting and expectation is over and now it’s finally time to really celebrate the season of Christmas. I will be celebrating here in Bethlehem.