In the Gospel of Luke, we hear today that Mary has just received the news from the Angel Gabriel that she is the favored one of God and is to give birth to Jesus, This news is received in Nazareth where Mary lives. Nazareth in the 1st century was a very small village. A town of probably no more than 200-300 people. There is a well in downtown Nazareth today known as Mary’s Well and is in an Orthodox church. This is considered by many to be the site of the Annunciation.
First century Nazareth was in the bottom of a bowl. Today’s Nazareth is built up on the sides of the bowl and extends in directions over the top of the bowl. Today the center of Nazareth is dominated by the modern Basilica of the Annunciation. It is a Latin Catholic worship space honoring Mary and the Holy Family. Art work throughout the Basilica is from countries throughout the world that honor Mary as the Mother of Jesus.
At the center of the Basilica is the primary worship space including an excavation of a 1st century home that is thought to be the home of the Holy Family. I was privileged to be at the Basilica this past month with a group of 28 people from 5 countries: 16 from the US. 5 from Sweden, 3 from the UK, 3 from Canada and 1 from France.
I left the Basilica and went to the monastery of the Sisters of Nazareth, a block away, which built a school for young people in Nazareth in the 1880’s. While the foundation was being built, a worker fell into a hole that turned out to be a cave used for worship by the early church in the 4th century. It also contained the grave of a bishop from the 4th century. A church was built next to the cave to honor the Holy Family at the site of a 1st century house with 3 rolling stone tombs under the house. So it was an early site for Pilgrims to come. Later, in the 12thcentury, it was added to by a crusader church as a Pilgrim site. It felt very authentic. It is not a place for tourists so I had to get special permission to see it. Which home at the Basilica or the Sisters of Nazareth might be authentic does not matter. Most Holy sites have more than one place designated. Both homes are 1st century so one can imagine the interconnectedness of a small village and know that people knew each other well.
But the story today moves to Bethlehem about 120 miles away, down through the Jordan Valley where Elizabeth is in the midst of her pregnancy with John the Baptist. Bethlehem was another small village of 100 – 200 people on the outskirts of Jerusalem. We know the story of no room at the inn and the birth of Jesus in a stable. The birth of Jesus has been honored since the 4th century in the Church of the Nativity as the birthplace of Jesus. It was probably honored in the setting before the 4th century but no churches were allowed to be built between the 1st and 4th century. I was privileged to also be there last month.
I made my 1st visit to Bethlehem in 1983. I was with a pilgrimage group from St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. I was Canon Pastor there at the time. I look back on that visit as one of the real turning points in my life. My life and ministry was changed. I have been back to the Holy Land over 30 times with pilgrimages, studied at our Cathedral of St. George’s, Sabeel International conferences, parish groups, Episcopal Peace Fellowship and witness trips.
And it is sad to say that 87% of the Bethlehem’s homes, orchards, and olive groves I visited in 1983 have been confiscated for illegal settlements, the separation wall, military checkpoints and bypass roads. The reality of the region is very different than what we would like it to be. In fact, the reality is that many Christians have left and few remain in Bethlehem.
Those who remain are the people I want to tell you about. A month ago, I attended an Orthodox Church in Bethlehem (actually Beit Jala next to Bethlehem) by the name of St. Nicholas – a name appropriate for the season. The Orthodox service was simply gorgeous and so very meaningful. It’s important to understand the Eastern rites of worship and appreciate them. Remember that at least 1/3 of Christians throughout the world are Orthodox Christians and use the Rites of the Ancient Eastern Rituals; throughout Eastern Europe, Russia, Greece, Middle East and parts of Africa.
For 2 ½ hours the complete service was sung and chanted in Arabic. Led by a group 0f 30 in the choir. Children were crawling around, people were reverencing icons in the church, several processions took place with children in wheelchairs leading the processions.
I was with my friend, Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican Priest from Nazareth that I have known and worked with for over 50 years. He would let me know what was happening in the liturgy. For instance – when the Nicene Creed was being intoned in Arabic, rejoicing in the Life of Christ, old people, young people, hundreds of people, music, singing, precessions, beautiful colors and banners, healing prayers during the Eucharist. A life giving service. A community gathered to celebrate the Eucharist and to praise the One who gives life to all of us. But, especially as He came to us as one of us. Born to live. Born to die. The word made flesh.
People of faith.
People of hope in the midst of despair.
The Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem are very proud of their heritage of 2,000 years. Palestinians claim their heritage as part of Pentecost because Arabs were a part of the story of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles.
I have been pleased to get to know people from Bethlehem. To hear their stories as they attempt to remain in their homes and businesses under very difficult circumstances. They are Orthodox Christians, Latin or Roman Catholic Christians, Protestant Christians (mainly Anglican and Lutheran) and they all consider their roots going back to the 1st century. A proud, generous, dedicated and faithful people who take their responsibility seriously as part of the Christian faith, in the place where Jesus was born.
As we rejoice in this Christmas season, let us remember our companions along the way in Bethlehem.