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.