Christmas - in the 'Little Town of Bethlehem'

In 1868, a Boston-born Episcopal bishop, moved by the spirit of Christmas, published the words to a song of the season. His name was Phillips Brooks, and you learned his song when you were very young.

O little town of Bethlehem

How still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by...

Bishop Brooks never saw that little town; he wrote those words out of his imagination. He should have been right. Bethlehem ought to be a place of stillness, of quiet. It's not. Worldly strife and politics ought to be kept at bay. They're not.Bethlehem seethes, along with the other communities of the West Bank. This month's demonstrations make the point that there is still no peace in the birthplace of the Prince of Peace.

It is an Arab town about five miles south of Jerusalem, built on the last ridge before the biblical wilderness falls away toward the Dead Sea to the east. On clear nights, lights flicker in the mountains of Moab, miles away in Jordan.

More than 20 years ago, I was a reporter sent to cover Christmas at Bethlehem. It was considered a tough assignment, because a physician named Luke had told that story very well a long time ago, and nobody ever did it better.

In Bethlehem, all roads lead to Manger Square, a huge plaza that faces the Church of the Nativity. The original structure was built on Emperor Constantine's orders. His mother, St. Helena, had toured the Holy Land, and, guided by faith, pinpointed all the major sites of Christianity. The Nativity was here, she said, and there they built.

In the Middle Ages, they had to brick up most of the main entrance to keep the pagans from riding their horses into the church and disrupting the services. The pagans don't do that anymore, but the entry is still too small to admit a horse, just in case.

Inside, there's a stairway to a grotto under the main altar. Guides conduct tours to a tiny chamber where St. Helena said a tired carpenter once sheltered his laboring wife, and where a religion was born. Donations are expected.

Outside, Manger Square is in the Bethlehem business, and is surrounded by the stalls and shops of merchants selling souvenirs to the Christians who come on pilgrimage to the site of the Nativity.

It is hard to feel reverent in Manger Square. Most of the merchants are Christians, too, which confuses the Baptists and Lutherans and Catholics who see them in Arab robes and make assumptions. The visitors bring their anticipations of Bethlehem, visions indelibly imprinted by childhood storybooks, and by the words of Bishop Brooks's song.

WHEN I was there on a Christmas Eve in the mid-1970s, pilgrims and sellers were haggling in English and French, and German carols were played over a speaker system. That competed with the crackling Hebrew coming out of the radios worn by Israeli troops on patrol against the annual Palestinian bomb threat.

Nobody seemed to notice the irony of the Children of Abraham protecting the Lambs of God from the Sons of the Prophet. The Christian merchants of Bethlehem were just as restive as the Muslims under Israeli rule, but they didn't do bomb threats, especially at Christmas. Bad for business.

Caught up in the swirl and babble of Manger Square that night were two small men with the stamp of the Andes on their faces and the blue berets of the UN peacekeeping force on their heads. They were members of the Peruvian battalion then stationed on the Golan Heights to remind the Israeli and Syrian armies that they were supposed to stay away from each other.

The soldiers on leave had come to Bethlehem for religious inspiration, and from the way they were shooing off kids trying to sell them olive wood crucifixes, they weren't finding it in Manger Square.

An American wearing a package tour's name tag nodded to the two Peruvians and said "Feliz Navidad." That familiar phrase, in such an unfamiliar place, produced instant grins. After a short conversation in Spanish, the soldiers drifted off toward the Nativity grotto, and the tourist's wife said, "You don't speak to strangers in Rochester."

"They weren't really strangers," he said. "They came here for the same reason that we did, and they were just having a little trouble with the clutter."

Bishop Brooks, your little town shows an occasional flash of living up to your image of it.

Yet in the dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light;

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee to-night.

Feliz Navidad.

* Steve Delaney, former host of Monitor Radio 'Early Edition,' lives in Milton, Vt.

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