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Stephanie SaldañaDecember 21, 2023
A Palestinian Catholic woman holds her as he lights a candle in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec. 17, 2023, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The church is built on what is believed to be the site where Jesus was born. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

You could be forgiven for thinking that it is always Advent in Bethlehem. Everything in the town seems to lean toward the manger, toward Christmas.

I live with my family on Manger Street, the long main road that leads up the hill to the Basilica of the Nativity in the town square, climbing steadily until it reaches the church that was first built in the 4th century and still stands today on the place where Jesus was born. The bakery beneath my home, where my neighbors place out warm loaves of bread in the early morning, is called the Manger Bakery. There is even a flower shop across the street called December, as though our town is held in a state of perpetual Christmas. In many ways it is, as pilgrims journey here all year round to read the same story in every language of the day on which Christ was born in Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.

In front of my window, as I wake, the sun rises over the terraced hills in the direction of Shepherd’s Field, where the angels sang Gloria to announce the birth of Jesus, and the shepherds began their journey toward the child. “Let us go now to Bethlehem, to see this thing that has taken place…” Behind me lies Star Street, where the three wise men were drawn forward by the star, until “it stopped over the place where the child was.”

There is a pull, one difficult to understand, except that we live it. I, too, have been drawn toward the manger. Since I moved to Bethlehem with my husband and three children, I have found myself increasingly called in the direction of the Nativity, walking up Star Street to the vegetable market near Manger Square to do my shopping, among mint and persimmons and pomegranates in season. I visit the woodcarvers on Milk Grotto Road behind the basilica—the street on which tradition says the holy family stopped to rest as they fled to Egypt. I have started to believe that the pull of the land embodies Advent itself, the way God slowly works on our hearts, transforming them until we become aware of the manger in our midst and allow ourselves to be drawn into it. This is what Bethlehem has taught me, that Advent is dynamic, it is happening to us, as much as it is working inside of us.

So it was in the town of Bethlehem that I woke up on Oct. 7, in the early morning as my children were still sleeping, and I read the news. Hamas had breached the border and attacked Israel. In time we would learn that they killed an estimated 1,200 people and took some 240 others hostage. Israel responded by attacking Gaza, in a war that as I write has been ongoing for over 75 days and has killed an estimated 20,000 Gazans, including more than 8,000 children, and displaced nearly 85 percent of the population. I have lived in the Middle East for years, but I have never been exposed to a war in which such a high percentage of the dead are children.

It is Advent in Bethlehem. I remain here with my family, with my neighbors, with my church. We are exhausted. The major Christmas festivities have been canceled. This year we are waiting for a hope that I am not sure I would even be able to believe in anymore, except that it does not entirely depend on us.

•••

Oct. 7 fell on a Saturday, and Bethlehem was placed under closure. We could no longer pass from the West Bank through the main checkpoint to Jerusalem or the surrounding cities. The following day, parishioners climbed the stairs to the Syriac Catholic church beside our home, where my husband is the parish priest. The church is named for St. Joseph, the protector of the Holy Family. I watched each person walk beneath the gaze of his statue as our community gathered to pray in spite of everything. Seeing our parish together, I touched again what the Christians here always witness, that the church is our first home, our sanctuary.

We sang. I could hear rockets overhead.

My three children stood beside me. I embraced them and looked to them and to those around me. None of us had any idea of what the future would hold. This is my family, I thought.

Star Street (Photo by author)
Star Street (Photo by author)

My 8-year-old daughter Carmel asked if she could write in the book of prayer intentions. I watched her scrawl in her child’s handwriting:

Je prie pour tout le monde qui est entraint de mourir dans la guerre et pour le gens qui perde leur famille. Je vous aime!

I pray for all of those who are dying in the war, and for those whoare losingtheir families. I love you!

The Christmas story begins with fear. The Christmas story begins with faith. With an angel saying: Be not afraid.

•••

Each day, the news wasfull of the dead and the missing.

How to give voice to this brokenness? A friend wrote to me.

But I could not. I had no vocabulary for such a moment. In Bethlehem, I walked in the direction of the manger. On a side street, a crowd was gathering in a plant store. They were calling out in Arabic to a man behind a counter: parsley, spinach, arugula. The man reached into drawers and handed them packets.

It took me a moment to recognize that they were seeds.

I remembered what Syrian refugees who had survived war taught to me. The first thing that you must do in wartime, especially if your town is under closure, is to plant a garden. You will need food, but in time you will also want to place your hands into the soil in order to feel it. I asked those around me what I could still plant so late in the season. Radishes and fava beans, green onions. When I returned home, I was carrying seeds.

That afternoon, Carmel and I found whatever plots of earth we could, and we planted. I was reminded of humus, earth, and my longing to feel human again. It was olive harvest season. I noticed four small olive trees hidden in a corner of the grounds, behind a locked gate.

My husband found the keys. We opened the gate to find trees laden with olives.

It was my first consolation during the war. The trees did not wait for us to remember them in order to give fruit.

We harvested every olive, searching through the branches, gathering those that fell on the ground. Life had become fragile. We did not want anything to go to waste.

When we carried our bucket of olives to the press, the workers told us that we had enough to produce a single bottle of oil. Enough for this year’s baptisms. For blessings during Holy Week.

Enough to light a lamp.

•••

Advent is a time of paying attention. “Be on guard! Be alert!” Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark. I had never been so aware of this dimension: God’s call that we see the world as it is and not look away. It is only in witnessing the brokenness that we can see why the incarnation is necessary.

On Oct. 19, Israeli airstrikes hit a building next to the Greek Orthodox church of St. Porphyrius in Gaza. Seventeen Christians were killed, in a Christian community in which everyone knows one another, and one that in Gaza has only about 1,000 people. We could no longer trust that our churches would be sanctuaries.

Bethlehem fell into an economic crisis. There were no tourists. Those workers who earned their living in Israel could no longer cross checkpoints. As I walked toward Manger Square, I stopped to talk to my friend Hassan, who has a son the same age as my daughter. When I asked how he was doing, he shook his head.

“My son’s starting to notice that we don’t have money. And I don’t mean that I’m not earning an income. I mean money to put food on the table.”

Children wait for the annual Procession of the Custos of the Holy Land, as well as Franciscan friars, into the Church of the Nativity to mark the beginning of Advent (Photo by author)
Children wait for the annual Procession of the Custos of the Holy Land, as well as Franciscan friars,  into the Church of the Nativity to mark the beginning of Advent (Photo by author)

He seemed to hesitate. “None of us knows if this will be over in one or two months, or if it is the beginning of something bigger. Now every time my son hears a loud noise, he’s scared.”

The heads of the Christian churches in Jerusalem issued a letter asking that festive Christmas activities be canceled in solidarity with all those suffering because of the violence. No Christmas tree lighting in Manger Square. No parade with scouts playing the bagpipes and drums. No Christmas market on Star Street.

“Will it be safe for Santa to fly over the country?” my daughter Carmel asked.

•••

As a community, we had to rediscover what it means to be Christians during such a time. We are only between 1 to 2 percent of the total population. It is easy to believe that we are powerless. Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote a letter to his diocese, imploring us to speak up in the face of injustice, while still holding onto the courage to love. “Our speech must be not about death and closed doors,” he wrote. “On the contrary, our words must be creative, lifegiving, they must give perspective and open horizons.” Soon after, he affirmed that “now was the time for closeness.” It was the language of incarnation, asking God to come closer to us so that we could find strength to draw close to those around us.

The ceasefire took hold on the eve of Advent. For seven days, we slept at night. We visited friends. Some of the checkpoints had opened, and I traveled to Jerusalem to attend Carmel’s choir practice. The Franciscans in charge of her music school had set out a nativity set from Naples, this season marking 800 years since St. Francis created his first creche on Christmas Eve in Greccio, Italy, in 1223.

The artists showed Jesus born among butchers and bakers, a man selling fish, a couple standing beneath a lantern on a balcony, all unaware of the miracle happening in their midst. I was reminded of the nowness of incarnation, God entering into our ordinary lives. From the room beside me, I could hear children singing:

All is calm. All is bright.

All I could think was that all of those children were still alive.

Sleep in heavenly peace.

For the first time since the war began, I wept.

The next day, the ceasefire ended.

•••

During wartime, you cannot afford to wait for God to arrive.

So I searched for God already with us. I felt God when the bakers beneath our house handed my children warm bread. When my friend Hanadi carried a heavy pot of burbara through the checkpoint on the feast of St. Barbara so that she could share the dessert with her colleagues. God was in Sami, the tea seller who taught me the recipe for his tisane: infused mint and sage, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, lemon, rose. God was in Suleiman, wiping down chairs on Star Street, already preparing the café he would open when the war was over.

I would walk to the Church of the Nativity to find teenage boys lighting candles before the icon of Mary, Our Lady of Miracles, before they continued to school.

People became gentler with one another. A soft hand on the shoulder. A message asking: How are you?

It was in those days that I became aware that the incarnation is a kindness. God breaking through the void to comfort us. Emmanuel, God with us, a with I now understood was not simply a word but a connection that carries the weight of the entire world.

God bridging the distance and saying: You are not alone. I would never ask you to live this by yourself. And it is precisely this that we are longing for in our lives, for God to reach out, over and over again, to keep reassuring us. And so God does.

•••

When Italian workers restored the mosaics inside the Church of the Nativity in 2016, they discovered an angel, concealed beneath the plaster. Wings unfurled, the angel gestures in the direction of the manger as if to say: Come and see.

I’ve met many people in Bethlehem who point to the manger.

On Milk Grotto Road, I found Jack Giacaman carving nativity sets. His father’s family has lived in Bethlehem for 800 years, his grandfather an artisan who carved mother-of-pearl. Today, he continues his family’s legacy by working with olive wood, paying attention so that the scenes reveal Bethlehem, the infant Jesus born not in a stable but in a cave.

Jack Giacoman carves wood at his workshop on Milk Grotto Street (Photo by author)
Jack Giacoman carves wood at his workshop on Milk Grotto Street (Photo by author)

“The olive wood of this region has a different grain, a different beauty than the olive wood that comes from other regions,” he told me. “If you gave me a piece of olive wood from Bethlehem I’ll know immediately that it’s from here. When you carve it, you taste the dust, and it even tastes different.”

He explained that carving is a form of prayer. In order to be a good carver, you must believe in the story you are creating.

“I’m proud that I’m from Bethlehem,” he told me. “It’s true that we have a lot of hardships, and war…. But Christmas gives us hope, that whenever the night will finish, there will be a day. So I stay. It will be a hard life, but I tell my daughters that there is a message to staying here, around the church where Jesus was born. I tell them: You are the first to give others the message of Jesus. There is a meaning to our lives.”

I asked him why carving olive wood matters. He paused before answering.

“Through our carving, we are teaching the stories of the Bible to small children,” he replied. “It’s not enough to simply read the story of the nativity. You have to be able to hold it in your hands.”

•••

On December 16, The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem issued a statement that the Israeli military had killed two Christian women, Nahida Khalil Anton and Samar Kamal Anton, who were sheltering inside of the Catholic compound of the Holy Family Church in Gaza. All lives are equally precious, and as we mourn them we also grieve the thousands of others who have been killed in this war. As I finish this, less than a week before Christmas, hundreds of other Christians remain within the Holy Family compound, with little access to food and water and no other place to escape. The situation is critical.

•••

A few weeks ago, my daughter heard her brothers discussing the Christmas truce, a series of unofficial ceasefires that took place over Christmas in Europe during the First World War. Soldiers from opposing sides briefly put down their weapons.

“Maybe Christmas will stop the war,” Carmel said at dinner.

I was touched by her innocence, that she still believed such miracles might happen.

But later, her words returned to me, like a prayer.

I cannot pretend to have the same faith as a child anymore. But I want to believe.

Yes, maybe Christmas will end the war. I am praying to God who entered into history and is entering history still. That when we arrive at the manger, it will not be to read a story. It will be to welcome the Prince of Peace, here and now.

A kindness. A tenderness.

A peace that we can finally hold in our hands.

 

For more from the author, listen to her interview on Jesuitical:

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