Out of Office: A Christmas Card from Bethlehem

National Geographic senior books editor Barbara A. Noe is just back from a visit to Bethlehem. 

The crowd crushes around me. It’s stifling hot. A woman says she’s going to faint. Everyone tries to be in good humor, but the Russians are behind, pushing en masse. I’ve been waiting in line for an hour or more at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, moving step by tiny step, through the four-foot-high Door of Humility and the nave decorated with Crusader paintings and mosaics, past the ornate Greek Orthodox altar. At long last, I reach steep, narrow stairs leading down into the grotto that is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and I’m scared that I’m going to tumble–taking everyone down with me.

Finally I get there, sweaty and discombobulated. The Greek Orthodox guards tell me to rush, as I quickly take a look at the silver star marking the revered site on the marble floor, sheltered by an altar, and I try to feel something of the peace and joy of Christmas. Disconcerted, I leave, pondering the fact that here I am in Bethlehem, having entered its fortified gates guarded by machine-gun-toting soldiers, and I don’t feel very peaceful or joyous.

Much of the basilica’s problems are rooted in the fact that three factions of Christianity–Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic–jointly administer the site, with each one controlling different parts of the church, and with a specific agreement regulating the times and places of worship for each denomination. And if one group encroaches on the other, disputes can erupt. Indeed, they have erupted, the most famous incident occurring at Christmas 2007. The Greeks were cleaning (with permission) the Armenian part of the church, including dusting the chandelier. Well, the Greeks moved their ladder from the agreed-upon spot to an unagreed-upon spot to better get at the chandelier. Palestinian police had to break up the ensuing broom-and-stone-throwing fray. It’s this hostility and resulting lack of organization among the groups that taints the holy aura of the church.

A similar arrangement occurs at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the world’s holiest Christian site, where Jesus is believed to have been buried–except administration is shared among six different denominations. I had visited there a couple days earlier. Again, once I entered the cramped, dark space, it was a rush to visit, with a quick couple of seconds to crouch at the venerated slab. What was more outrageous, however, occurred after, as I was strolling around the incense-infused, highly decorated church. A Greek Orthodox priest shouted at a woman for getting too close to the holy shrine, and then he shoved her–she was Roman Catholic, and the hour had moved to Greek Orthodox control.

The profound strife at the Holy Sepulcher dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Ottoman sultans ruled the land and the Christians couldn’t decide which group among them should possess the key that opened and closed the church. The Ottomans thereby established a system now known as Status Quo, mandating that things be done as they always had been. So by default, the Muslim family that had been opening and closing the church for years continued to do so–the same family that does it to this day.

Back near Bethlehem, a couple of miles from the Church of the Nativity, Beit Sahour’s Shepherd’s Field is where shepherds tended their flocks in Jesus’ day, where, according to tradition, the angels appeared and proclaimed “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth and good will to men.” The field is gone, replaced by parkland with beautifully tended flowerbeds and several churches, including a shepherd’s cave converted into a chapel. From here I peer north and see the disconcerting Bethlehem wall, with Jerusalem’s white buildings sparkling off in the distance. Above glows a big blue sky–the same sky where, two millennia ago, shepherds noticed a dazzling star hanging in all its glory. And standing here, embraced by the warm sun, quietude all around, I realize that this is the image of Christmas I want to keep in mind: of peacefully grazing sheep, shepherds in awe, and the star rising above all the strife and conflict below.

Photo: The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, by David Baliles/My Shot