I don't know how I could have celebrated 50 Christmases, sung all the carols, studied all the sacred texts but never been to Bethlehem. So, on a recent visit to the Middle East, after visiting my son studying in Cairo I went through Amman and across the Jordan River to Jerusalem. For days I could have walked the holy corridors of the ancient walled city. Feasting on all the Jewish, Muslim and Christian history, food and culture was full of revelations for body, mind and soul.
But on the third morning from East Jerusalem I caught the bus at the ancient Herod's Gate for the thirty minute journey to the legendary birth place of the "Prince of Peace." I guess I knew Bethlehem was in the West Bank, but as a typical tourist to a renowned Christian shrine, I hopped on the Bethlehem bus more out of curious obligation than anything.
When the bus stopped suddenly, nowhere near any shepherds or wise men, I asked the driver what was going on. "You go through the security gate over there," he said. Embarrassingly I nodded and made my way up a sterile cement walkway lined with walls and barbed wire on both sides. Not the gentle hillsides with shepherds abiding I was expecting. When inside the young Israeli guard sitting behind the gated window asked to see my passport. My passport? Luckily I had it on me, not realizing I'd need it to go see Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. The guard waved me through, saying something about Canada, though my now confused mind didn't take it in.
Coming out the other side, I began to feel a little angry seeing nothing but a descending cement walkway with more walls and barbed wire. At the end of it four little boys came rushing up hocking fistfuls of postcards of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and an assortment of other trashy trinkets. While appeasing them by buying a few, I was approached by several men beseeching me to take their taxi to see the holy sights of the little tourist town of Bethlehem. Impetuously I picked out one driver and said I'd pay him for two hours, but that I wanted to go to the place where he was born. I wanted to see his Bethlehem and show me what it is like to live behind these walls and wire. He was startled but for cab fare agreed to go anywhere.
He did not oblige me. Instead he drove up to a pastoral hillside where at some mythological time of biblical memory shepherds were tending their flock by night. Lovely. As I looked over to a concession of commerce a chartered bus pulled up and tourists poured out. "Do they have to go through the security gate as I did?" I asked him. "No they get special clearance," although obviously he wasn't speaking from experience. Interesting, I thought.
On the way down I made him stop at the side of the road where we could clearly see the dividing wall snaking around the little town, and where modern new Israeli housing developments were springing up. Pointing he said, "My grandparents are buried on the other side of the Wall. But I never go." He really didn't want to talk about it.
I was not keen to go to the Church of the Holy Nativity, averse as I am to commercial crèches and more holy trinkets. But he insisted, and as feared, I saw dark, gaudy candelabra, drab centuries-worn ambience and yet the many pilgrims, whose devotion I do admire. Few were devoted to how this birthplace of the Prince of Peace co-exists with this occupied territory of fear.
My Palestinian taxi driver doesn't do fear. "We get along, we accept our conditions, we don't want to cause trouble like others," he said. "Come and have some tea with my friends and we'll talk," Perfect, I thought, let's go. Ten minutes later, driving past more angry graffiti walls, he ushered me into one of the worst Palestinian, we-love-Christians tourist shops I could have imagined. Endless walls from floor to ceiling with over-priced wood carvings of every Matthew, Mark, Luke and John character you can imagine. Shelves full of the BVM, wise men and shepherds on aisle B, crèches, endless crèches piled high on the central aisle. All with price tags that made my eyes roll. I'll never complain of Whistler prices again.
For the shop keeper, his buddies and my taxi driver, Palestinian liberation has become, as it is for people around the world, an economic enterprise not a spiritual one. Show me the money. Give me the money. It was my turn to pay homage and give them gifts of dollars, coins and credit cards. And for a tacky, lacquered Celtic wooden cross with "God Bless Our House" I paid $110.
As he drove me to the barbed-wire Gatehouse and Walls to cross for the journey back to Jerusalem, my Palestinian taxi driver said he liked me. "Come and visit Canada," I said. No, I forgot, he can't. He doesn't have a passport. So I gave him a big tip and we shared a firm hand shake. It was for me a handshake with Bethlehem.
Bethlehem in Aramaic means "House of Bread." We need our daily bread and sustenance. We are a worldwide consumer culture. We need to "get the economy going again." They have the religious tourism economy going in Bethlehem, and why not?
But when the economic house is finally full of that bread, the desires of consumption fully satiated, the holy trinkets all sold out, then I want to go back to Bethlehem. And in a rebirth of hope I'll see how God with her sisters kneels on the Earth, kindles the fire, kneads the dough, fills the air with the smell of really fresh bread, with the power to share it equitably and peaceably for those who hunger for more.