As we get closer to Christmas I can't help but think of the Christmas story, especially the importance of Bethlehem. Bethlehem seems so big and important in the gospels yet in actuality it is a pretty small place. This past May I had the chance to take a wonderful two week pilgrimage to the Holy Land and we went to Bethlehem which in Hebrew means "house of bread" and in Arabic "house of meat" I guess in the Middle Eastern world bread is just as important as meat and vice versa.
Bethlehem is about three or four miles just south of Jerusalem and located in the West Bank or as the Israeli's call it the IOTA (Israeli Occupied Territorial Area). To get to Bethlehem you have to drive through a series of military checkpoints, young men with machine guns come on board the bus and check passports, these guys can be no more than 18 or 19 years old. When you pass through the large cement car barriers you feel like you are in a different country--extreme poverty, homes that are in dire need of a new coat of paint, rusted out cars, and very few stores. Our tour guide told us that only 1 or 2 % of the population is Christian, a sad commentary on the birthplace of our Lord. Large minerets and modern looking mosques dot the landscape.
In the middle of Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square, the supposed birthplace of Jesus, I say supposed because no one really knows for sure.
Bethlehem and the West Bank remind me of the Old Wild West in our country, dry, dusty, everything looking so worn and in need of rest. Yet this is where Mary gave birth to Jesus, in the house of bread, in this old, dusty, and worn out part of the world. What humble beginnings for the savior of the world!