In 1865, the tall young rector of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church was in Jerusalem for the Christmas season. On Christmas Eve, he rode to Bethlehem on horseback, where he attended a worship service at The Church of the Nativity that lasted five hours (from 10 PM to 3 AM). Three Christmases later, that same preacher was inspired to write a special carol for the children in his church’s Sunday School. Thinking back to that Christmas Eve in Israel, he composed the words we know so well:
O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Phillips Brooks would later move to a church in Boston, where he became known as America’s preeminent preacher. But he is still primarily known today for his carol. That Christmas of 1868, Brooks had given the words to his church’s organist, asking him to produce a tune to match. The organist struggled at first, but later claimed he heard the perfect tune in a dream. He scribbled it down as soon as he woke, and managed to teach it to the children in time for Christmas services that year. The song, written for children, was first published in a hymnal three years later, and quickly became a classic.
In 2014, I visited Bethlehem. Even though it was March, I couldn’t help but think about Brooks’ song. Bethlehem is still a small town, and not very prosperous. It’s in Palestinian territory on the West Bank of Jerusalem, and most of the signs were in Arabic. It’s also a tourist town. When we got off our bus, a man in his forties approached us on the street, holding up a beautiful carved nativity scene that was a little larger than his hand. “Small size Nativity sets, ten dollars” he said. For one teenaged girl in our group, this seemed like a deal that was too good to pass up. She asked her grandfather, who had brought her on the trip, for ten bucks, and paid for her prize. The man took the money, then reached into his pocket and pulled out something the size of his thumb. If you looked closely, you could see the Holy Family carved crudely into the tiny piece of wood. The girl said, “What about the one in your hand?” The man answered, “I said ‘small size Nativity set.’ This is large size Nativity set, and it’s twenty five.” The girl’s grandfather smiled grimly and said, “Okay, you got us. Now move along.”
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.
After our lesson in street capitalism and a lunch of schwarma at the most American-looking restaurant we saw in Israel, we walked to the Church of the Nativity. In 327 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine and his devout mother Helena commissioned the basilica to be built over a small grotto where many believed Mary had given birth to Jesus. It’s a dark, cavernous place, filled with ancient icons and the smell of burning incense, and a striking 14-pointed star with a Latin inscription over the site of the sacred grotto.
For an American evangelical like me, the trappings of Eastern Orthodoxy seem alien. But as I walked through a door into the adjoining building, I found myself in the Catholic Church of St Catherine. It’s brightly lit and, although ornate, seems much more like a church we would see in America. Every Christmas Eve, their Midnight Mass is broadcast around the world. That day, it was nearly deserted and very quiet. One of the members of our group accidentally knocked one of the kneeling benches down, and the sound of the wooden kneeler hitting the marble floor seemed as loud as a rifle shot.
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His Heaven.
But the most significant moment for me happened after we left the two churches and took a bus to the top of a hill outside the city. There we toured the ruins of Herod’s palace at Herodium, which once loomed over Bethlehem. It was not his primary residence, but it was a magnificent place in its day, with extravagant living quarters in its four seven-story towers, a Roman-style bathhouse and a large theater. It’s where Herod was buried, in an elaborately decorated stone tomb. I could picture Herod and his well-heeled guests watching the latest Greek play (with Herod and his favorite wife sitting in the luxury box—yes the theater had one), dining, drinking, and laughing, oblivious to the humble citizens of Bethlehem just down the hill from them.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
We could see an Israeli settlement from Herod’s Palace. It was a beautiful suburban neighborhood, with red-roofed homes, well-paved streets, and a gate manned by armed guards. It looked much nicer than anything else we saw in Bethlehem. Our guide, an American Christian, told us that these settlements are subsidized by the Israeli government…essentially, they want to make it as tempting as possible for their citizens to live in Palestinian territory. Of course, the Palestinians resent this intrusion. I took a picture of the view with my phone; the Israeli settlement is in the foreground, with the rest of Bethlehem further down the hill.
I thought back to our trip from Jerusalem that morning. We had to cross through a security checkpoint to get there. We walked through it on foot before re-boarding our bus. As we did, we walked past hundreds of Palestinian men lined up, waiting to be cleared by security so that buses could take them to their jobs in Jerusalem. The barrier was first built in 2000, during the Second Intifada, a time of suicide bombings and riots by Palestinians and retaliatory strikes by the Israeli military (an estimated 4000 people were killed between the two sides). To Israelis, this wall is vital to their security; to Palestinians, it is a version of racial apartheid. The men in that long line didn’t look like they were thinking about politics, however. The expressions on their faces reminded me of the way Houstonians look when stuck in traffic; only their commute involves a stop of an hour or more each day before riding the short trip to work in Jerusalem, the only place in the region with employment opportunities. The world hasn’t changed all that much in two thousand years. I never felt unsafe in Israel, but at moments like this, I saw that (as Longellow once wrote in another famous carol) “there is no peace on earth…for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray!
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
As I pondered these things, a member of my group nudged me and pointed to the hillside between the palace and Bethlehem. There were shepherds out there, Bedouins in dark, hooded garments tending what looked from our lofty perch like little white balls of cotton. I wondered if that was where the shepherds in Luke 2 had been when the angel appeared to them that night, igniting the sky in a terrifying holocaust of holy light. I thought about Mary and Joseph, somewhere further down the hill in that little village. I wondered if they had glanced nervously at Herod’s palace on top of that hill; That same King who lived in Romanesque luxury would soon unleash horrific violence on the small town of Bethlehem, killing infants in a sociopathic attempt to eliminate the Messiah. Human politics and ambition will always seem to be more powerful and relevant than grace; but two millennia later, Herod’s tomb is a ruin, and Jesus’ tomb is empty. The child in the manger grew up to change the world like no other human who has ever lived; whereas the King in the Palace is only remembered because of his part in that child’s story. Grace is intrepid. Tyranny and violence of all kinds are no match for God’s saving power.
We hear the Christmas angels,
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!