To reach Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, where angels once proclaimed peace on Earth and goodwill toward men, you must first pass through the Wall.
An eight-metre-high concrete barrier, castellated with watch towers, barbed wire and video cameras, the Wall ripples along the border of Palestinian and Israeli-controlled territory for as far as the eye can see outside of Jerusalem, a quick city bus ride away.
My wife Janine and I have arrived here early to get through the Wall’s notoriously tight security. So we’re pleasantly surprised when, instead of searching every item on our persons, the uniformed Israelis in the Wall’s cavernous processing room don’t even request our passports or ask us to remove our backpacks. Instead, they hurry us through the scanners and metal detectors with an arm-wheeling gesture that has us blinking in the bright sunshine on the Palestinian side of the barrier in seconds.
It’s a quick cab ride from here to the heart of Bethlehem. But since we have time, we stroll into town along the Palestinian side of the Wall. West Bank residents have turned it into a giant canvas for protest. Frescoes by internationally renowned graffiti artist Banksy stand beside quotes from Arudhati Roy. Someone has sprayed “Ich bein ein Berliner” in large letters across one concrete slab. “Give me back my ball!” is scrawled in a child’s handwriting beside it. It goes on and on, part outdoor gallery and part politics lecture.
Christmas festivities are in full swing when we reach the centre of town through a maze of narrow, hilly streets. A parade crosses Manger Square. Dozens of Girl Guide and Boy Scout troops from across the West Bank march behind bands belting out carols on bagpipes, drums and glockenspiels. Young Arab men on stilts dressed as Santa Claus wobble along beside them, bending down to pick up dubious toddlers for photo ops. Tea vendors wade through the crowd shouting “chai-chai-chai!” Stalls sell corn on the cob, roasted nuts, party hats, rosaries, olive wood carvings and postcards.
Humming along with the Ramallah Cub Scout Brigade’s vigorous recorder rendition of Joy to the World, we make our way to the Square’s main attraction: the Basilica of the Nativity. One of the oldest churches in Christianity, it meshes with several neighbouring buildings in a rambling, fort-like exterior. We crouch to pass through its Door of Humility, the top third bricked over during the Crusades to keep knights from attending church on horseback.
The interior of the Basilica is quiet and the light from the few near-ceiling windows is subdued. Ornate brass lamps and censers dangle from the exposed timber ceiling. No pews. Just a pillar-lined causeway of uneven flagstone leading to an altar encrusted in silver and gold iconography of the Virgin and Child.
On either side of the altar, small spiral staircases lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity, the ground where Mary and Joseph welcomed their new arrival into the world more than 2,000 years ago.
It’s a narrow, cave-like space that would fit inside many Canadian living rooms. On the floor beneath a plain marble altar, a 14-point silver star commemorates the exact site where Mary gave birth. Pilgrims shuffle by reverently, lowering themselves on all fours to kiss the symbol. A smaller sub-chapel a few feet away marks where Jesus was laid in the manger. It’s also crammed with the devoted, kneeling before a replica of Christ’s first bed. An orthodox priest and an ancient African nun keep traffic moving through each shrine.
Maybe it’s the aroma of old incense and ancient earth, the vague sense of claustrophobia and the intense hum of prayers and requests to the Almighty. Or maybe it’s simply a case of location, location, location. But there is a sense of awe and power in this little room dwarfing the impression made by St. Peter’s or Notre Dame.
As we arise from our own genuflection before the star, Janine whispers into my ear: “We have to be here at midnight.”
We are attempting to crash Jesus’s birthday party at his own house.
Access to the Grotto for midnight mass is tightly controlled and limited to the handful of people who secure free tickets given out weeks in advance of Christmas.
We have no tickets. But we do have Ahmed.
Ahmed is a Palestinian captain we chatted up earlier in the day. Turns out he has a nephew who immigrated to Canada a few years ago and writes him glowing e-mails about how nice Canadians are. We tell Ahmed about our dream of being in the Basilica at midnight and he smiles. “Come back tonight and I will help you,” he says.
When we return at 10 p.m., the crowd waiting to get into the Basilica is more like a mosh pit than an orderly line of the faithful. Priests and nuns jostle for position. A teenage ticket holder almost drops gloves with a Franciscan monk he swears hit him with an umbrella. We’re too busy fending off pushy pilgrims to even look for Ahmed. But somehow our repeated and frantic use of his name to the beleaguered security guards gets us through the Door of Humility.
The cave is crammed with worshippers standing shoulder to shoulder as midnight approaches. There are complexions from all corners of the Earth. Some look fervent, some tired, some have their eyes closed in prayer. It’s cloyingly hot and an air of expectant tension permeates the room.
At the stroke of 12, a trio of priests enters the Grotto and begins mass in Arabic. Only a few spectators understand, but the cadences of the prayers and the music of the carols are familiar to any Christian, and the rest of us chime along in our own languages, filling the cave with a strange and wonderful international murmur. One priest falteringly translates the homily into English, another into Italian. We exchange the kiss of peace with half a dozen complete strangers, including the deacon who intentionally stepped on my foot in the mosh pit line.
Festivities in Manger Square are winding down when we finally emerge from the Basilica. A few street cleaners sweep up candy wrappers and confetti. A solitary hawker stands morosely by a collection of party hats, now available at greatly reduced prices.
Returning to our hotel along a cobblestone path called Star Street, we wind our way through a quiet Bethlehem that, for the first time today, really does seem like a still little place where a newborn child might sleep in peace.
Special to The Globe and Mail