Reflections from Christmas in Bethlehem

Palestinian girls wear Santa hats on a class trip to Manger Square outside of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec. 17. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

Twelve years ago, on Christmas Eve, I walked from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, nine months pregnant with my first child. He was due on Christmas Day, and I was planning on giving birth in Holy Family Hospital, not far from Manger Square, where Jesus was born. I convinced myself that if I walked there, I might go into labor when I arrived.

Instead, I crossed into Bethlehem exhausted and with feet so swollen that I had to take off my shoes, with not a contraction to be felt. My husband and I celebrated Christmas Mass that year in Shepherds’ Field, my heart anchored to a star. My son, Joseph, with his characteristic sense of humor, finally made his appearance 10 days later.

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I still live with my family in Jerusalem on the road to Bethlehem, and as Christmas approaches, my heart turns toward the city of Christ’s and my own son’s birth. On Christmas Eve, I will journey again with my husband and three children to celebrate beneath that now-familiar star.

But this year feels different. I am tired. I am scared.

As Christmas approaches, my heart turns toward the city of Christ’s and my own son’s birth.

I keep thinking about the refugees I have met, stranded across the region and in camps in Greece, or the Christians leaving en masse, the violence in Syria and the demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq. And it is not just the Middle East—it is the world. I remember the children separated from their parents on the border of my home state of Texas. I worry about my own children. I cannot ignore that if I keep walking on this road to Bethlehem, I will soon run into a checkpoint and a wall.

This year, when I think about Christmas, I keep remembering a lecture I recently gave in Jerusalem about my work with refugees. I spoke about those who have inspired me with their courage, carrying their music, languages and embroidery with them as they started anew. A well-meaning friend told me when I had finished: “You need to make your stories less hopeful.” His words stung. His criticism, common in the Middle East, is that a hopeful story about a violent world is in reality a destructive story. It is only possible if the teller is avoiding something of the truth.

I have meditated over his words for months now. No, my heart keeps telling me. Real hope is not an escape from the truth. Nor is it a shortcut. Hope is hard. Hope is the long road to Bethlehem.

That is why, as I write this, I am sitting in the ruins of the Kathisma church, an octagonal Byzantine church built on the pilgrimage road to Bethlehem in the fifth century. Here, tradition says, Mary rested on the way to give birth: tired, thirsty, needing to sit down. For centuries pilgrims also rested here, praying in the chapels around Mary’s seat, drinking water from the wells before continuing on to the site of Jesus’ birth.

I pass these ruins abandoned on the side of the highway almost every day on the way to pick up my children from school—Mary’s journey to Bethlehem inserting itself into my afternoons. Each time, my heart is pulled toward them. A voice within me says: Rest. Don’t go too quickly to Bethlehem.

So here I am, trying to heed that voice. I sit in the ruins. I remember. I take in the faces of those I have seen. I whisper their names. I ask God to help me carry all that I have witnessed in my heart. I pray to drink from the well. I give thanks for all of my loved ones, who join me on this pilgrimage. I pray for the strength not to turn around.

We bring our hearts with us to Bethlehem. This is what Christmas means. Our hope is not cheap. It is facing the violence and the mess, only to discover that this journey has brought us to the manger, where God comes to meet us.

We go deeper. We keep walking. Christ is born.

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