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Reflections on the Bethlehem Skyline

December 20, 2019 by

The flimsy metal door at the top of the stairs sticks, so I give it a good kick. We step out onto the roof over the dining room. The sun is just slipping behind the hills to our right, but the sky is still light enough to enjoy the superb panoramic view. Walking toward the roof’s edge, we see the first winking lights of Bethlehem. 

We’re looking south, over a stretch of olive grove backed by block buildings, and on toward the more tightly packed homes and high-rises. In the distance we see the telltale mosque, the red-roofed hotel, and the steeple of Nativity Church that mark Manger Square. To the east is the village of Beit Sahour, where the shepherds’ fields lie, and looming in the background is the conspicuous flat-topped mountain, Herodium, the ancient ruins of Herod’s palace and fortress. Herod? Yes, Herod the Great, the one who was after the infant Jesus. He combined two mountains to gain a commanding view of his domain and to watch for any threats from the direction of Jerusalem. Beyond that we see the first bare hills of the Judean desert. A little more east are the neatly stacked homes of Har Homa settlement. Turning toward the setting sun is the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Jala and the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo. If we’re here at the right time and looking, we’ve seen in the darkening sky above the coast the rockets explode in a quick flash and puff of white.

Skyline from a rooftop in Jerusalem

If we would walk the length of the building and look north, past a couple of tall pines, we would see the spreading stone high-rises of Jerusalem. Snaking between the olive trees and the buildings and the settlements in the foreground is the Wall, a twenty-foot cement monstrosity with a sprawling complex – now brightly lit – called Checkpoint 300.

Hardly anyone comes up here, so we’ve made it our special spot when we’re home and have the time. This year in the Holy Land has given us a lot to think about. Every day has taught us something new, and the space and the sky and this rooftop view provide us with a place to take the mental steps backward to process the barrage of impressions and experiences.

 

We’ve been here since last December as volunteers at Tantur Ecumenical Institute. We’ve toured, read, studied, attended lectures, and certainly worked (we’re doing cleaning and maintenance in exchange for room and board, with two days off a week). When work is over, we frequently catch the bus to wander the streets of Jerusalem, and just as frequently walk through the checkpoint to Bethlehem. We have dear friends on all sides: Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, Christians. We’ve explored the country from Mount Herman (in a snow storm!) at the northern-most part of the land, to Eilat, the tip that touches the Red Sea.

But the chill in the air reminds us it’s nearing Christmas. Soon a contingent of five brothers and sisters from home will come to celebrate with us. We’ll get to show them some of our favorite places and introduce them to our friends. 

We also plan to sing. We’ve missed the singing, which is a big part of life at home. We’re looking forward to sitting out here with them (if the weather only cooperates!) and singing all our favorite carols. We’ll sing while looking out into the sky above Bethlehem where the star once hung over the stable, and where the hosts of angels proclaimed their glad tidings to the shepherds – the very same sky! 

There’s a song, One Star Above All Stars, which I’ve thought of many times since we’ve been here. I remember singing it since childhood and noticing the fine print below: “Believed to be the oldest Christmas song.” The lyrics come from Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians, written around 110 A.D. just before he was martyred. The melody must have evolved over the centuries, but the tune we sing now is attributed to J.S. Bach. Ignatius’ letter is short, but nevertheless divided in chapters, and the lyrics come from chapter nineteen. It’s worth looking up several translations of this chapter, but here I’ll cite Cyril Richardson:

Now, Mary’s virginity and her giving birth escaped the notice of the prince of this world, as did the Lord’s death – those three secrets crying to be told, but wrought in God’s silence. How, then, were they revealed to the ages? A star shone in heaven brighter than all the stars. Its light was indescribable and its novelty caused amazement. The rest of the stars, along with the sun and the moon, formed a ring around it; yet it outshone them all, and there was bewilderment whence this unique novelty had arisen. As a result all magic lost its power and all witchcraft ceased. Ignorance was done away with, and the ancient kingdom was utterly destroyed, for God was revealing himself as a man, to bring newness of eternal life. What God had prepared was now beginning. Hence everything was in confusion as the destruction of death was being taken in hand.

I can’t end my thoughts here with a tidy holiday-wrapped cliché. This land is steeped in too much pain and blood – and just as much history, research, and prayer – to make sense of it all, even after a year of trying. But come January, I hope I will return home with a few firm beliefs stored in my heart: that God once revealed himself right here as a man, and I believe he still has secrets crying to be told. He is working out his plan so that all ignorance will be done away with and death will be destroyed forever. And when that great day of reconciling comes, all the pain and division of this land will be done away with too. And I want to be there with the sun and the moon and the stars and all the rest of creation and my brother and sisters, bowing before him.


Emily Alexander and her husband Peter have been living in Jerusalem for the past year. Emily is a designer at Plough.

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