Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem

The Advent season ushers in the time of year when the hope and anticipation of the birth of Christ becomes the focal point of Christians throughout the world as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. Eyes and hearts are turned towards Bethlehem, the town Mary and Joseph traveled to on the back of a donkey, and where Mary subsequently delivered the baby Jesus. Bethlehem becomes the center of many songs, prayers, and sermons this season, as the story of the silence of God to the Old Testament Hebrew people comes to an end in the form of a small baby born in a manger.

But what of Bethlehem today in comparison to the town we celebrate this Advent season? If Mary and Joseph traveled through present-day Israel and Palestine to register in the national census, what would their journey entail? In December 2016, 24 Palestinian relay runners, comprised of 12 men and 12 women dressed as Mary and Joseph, undertook the journey to reach Bethlehem in the West Bank. Beginning in Nazareth, a city in northern Israel, the runners ran south to the West Bank border, where they encountered their first checkpoint alongside the eight meter high separation wall that almost encircles Bethlehem.  

Designed to monitor every person crossing into and exiting the West Bank along the Green Line, the armistice line between Israel and the Palestinian Territories established upon the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, checkpoints are often time-consuming and require extensive planning when traveling. Due to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank built on Palestinian land and the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian Territories, economic growth and employment opportunities within the West Bank for Palestinians are limited. Many apply for work permits to seek jobs in Jerusalem and Israel. Many Palestinians suffering from illness within the West Bank, where hospitals are underfunded and ill-equipped to serve patients,  attempt to seek care at Israeli hospitals on the other side of the wall in Jerusalem. This also requires a permit. For students from the West Bank seeking higher education opportunities at universities in Jerusalem, they too must acquire permits.

People fortunate to own an entry permit to Israel must stand in narrow lines, often for hours during morning rush hour, to pass through metal detectors and often submit to a body search by armed Israeli soldiers. People begin their journey to wait in line at Bethlehem’s Checkpoint 300 as early as 3:30 in the morning. As many as 26,000 Palestinians cross from the Qalandiya Checkpoint from Ramallah in the West Bank to Jerusalem every day, whether it’s for commuting to work or school, visiting relatives, or seeing the doctor. Even if there is an emergency, a person still runs the risk of being detained and searched.

This is a cause of concern especially for pregnant Palestinian women, as routine visits to the doctor for prenatal care require waiting in line at the checkpoint to reach better hospitals in Israel. Often, when women go into labor, they face the daunting possibility of being held at the checkpoint en route to the delivery room. This journey, too, requires obtaining a permit to leave the West Bank. Many women have gone into labor and delivered at the checkpoint, which presents an entire new set of challenges and sanitation issues for an already emotionally and physically taxing situation.

This season calls us to consider the message of Jesus’ birth and what it asks of us today.

When Mary and Joseph finally entered Bethlehem during their journey over 2,000 years ago, it was a humble town within the Roman Empire. The heavily taxed population lived under occupation of Roman soldiers who carried out King Herod’s often violent decrees, such as putting to death every baby boy under the age of two in Bethlehem when he was told a future king had recently been born. Mary and Joseph were a portrait of vulnerability as they undertook their heavenly mandated journey.

As this couple completed a journey that would alter the course of history, extending far beyond the Roman Empire, the Jewish population in first century Palestine was in the midst of an extensive period of silence since God had given the people a message through the last prophet of the Old Testament. The population was awaiting a deliverance in the form of a Messiah, who came to them as an infant - the embodiment of vulnerability. From his humble beginnings to maturity, Christ challenged the authority of the Roman Empire through his kingship and Gospel message of peace and forgiveness.

Twenty-first century Bethlehem, a city of approximately 22,000 residents, is again under occupation and awaiting a different kind of deliverance. Surrounded by expanding settlements internationally recognized as illegal and hemmed in by the separation wall, the people of Bethlehem, 12% of whom are Palestinian Christian, are again anticipating a deliverance - this time from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli military occupation, which has lasted now for 50 years.  

Why is this significant for American Christians as they celebrate Advent and Jesus’ birth? In a recently released Ecumenical Statement entitled “U.S. Churches Stand with Jerusalem Heads of Churches,” a number of American pastors reflect on Advent as a time of “forgiveness, salvation, and new creation.” This season calls us to consider the message of Jesus’ birth and what it asks of us today. Christ’s birth, in a humble setting to displaced parents living under occupation in first century Palestine, has dramatically shaped our lives; this requires Christians to examine how we are connected to the wider family of Christians today, especially those living in the city of his birth.

“As the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem call us to remember,” continues the Ecumenical Statement, “the suffering of Christians in the Holy Land ‘do not affect one church only; they affect us all, and they affect Christians and all people of good will around the world.’” During the Advent season, in which we await the birth of Christ with prayerful expectation and hope, let us reflect upon the journey a group of runners undertook last year. Their journey demonstrated the reality of the challenges of Mary and Joseph would face in traveling  today. As the people of Bethlehem work towards peace and reconciliation, let us, as a people of hope, join them this Advent season through this prayer spoken at the National Cathedral’s annual Bethlehem Prayer Service:

[That] the child born to all humanity may awaken us to heal this broken and hurting world, and the peace proclaimed by angels in the shepherds’ field may be realized in every place of war and on every violent street, we pray to you, O God. That as you entered this world in the poverty of a cave, you would instill in us the courage to dismantle the barriers that separate rich from poor, so that we may build together the just world you intended, we pray to you, O God. Come now, O God of love. Reconcile your people and make us one body.

-Sara Burback served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan, where, in addition to teaching English, she developed a keen interest in democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech (or lack thereof) in the former Soviet Union. She expanded upon this at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where she earned her MA in International Human Rights. She now works at the nonprofit the United States Energy Association in Washington, DC and participates annually in Bethlehem's Right to Movement marathon in defense of the basic human right to movement.