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Bethlehem: My visit to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity is marred by a visit from my old nemesis
Posted by Douglas, Jun 13, 2008. 2443 views. ID = 1382


Posted by Douglas, Jun 13, 2008. 2443 views. ID = 1382
This post was written in 9 minutes.
This post has been awarded 33 stars by 7 readers.
This post is Part 4 of a writing series titled The Bovine Man.

Bethlehem. It is nothing like what you have seen on your postcards and your Christmas cards. There is none of the stillness and sweetness you have come to expect after singing O Little Town of Bethlehem for so many years of Christmas caroling on quiet and cold moonlit evenings. The city, in all its modern glory, sprawls out in every direction from the ancient town you have envisioned for so long. The steady congestion of city traffic, the loud blaring of horns, the shouting of vendors selling souvenirs, all these combine to destroy any sense of Christmas spirit.

And then there is the church itself - the Church of the Nativity. As I approached the courtyard of that famous structure, I was appalled by the number of vendors there at the court, selling food, trinkets, clothing, and olive wood statuettes of wise men, shepherds, and the infant Christ. I was reminded of Christ entering the temple of Jerusalem with anger and a whip, overturning the tables. For a brief, panicked moment, I felt a strong urge to do the same here.

But inside! Oh, what magnificence! There were high, domed ceilings with enormous wooden beams, and hanging lanterns that lit the aisles with a cheerful, flickering glow. Along the way there were magnificent columns of limestone decorated with murals and mosaics that stretched from floor to ceiling, marking a sort of royal pathway to the front of the nave. Here the insane and inane babbling of the crowds was not permitted, and the silence that Phillips Brooks wrote about reigned over everything.

Then there was the cave, the grotto in which many believe the Christ child was born. Candles and lanterns gave a soft glow to the pilgrims who knelt to kiss the silver star that marked the birthplace of the Lord. I stood in silent awe as I imagined that very first Christmas scene. Then, in that holiest of places, a deep, rumbling voice whispered into my ear, "You feel the power of it, don't you?"

Angry, rather than surprised, I turned to face the man who stood beside me, his wide set eyes staring at me above his bestial jaw. I should have been surprised, but even though his presence here seemed unnatural, it also seemed almost inevitable. I said nothing, but gave a jerk of my head, as though to say, "Not in here." I turned away from that holy grotto and walked out of the church, not looking to see if my strange stalker was following me.

Once we were outside, among the shouting and laughing vendors, I spun around and snapped, "Who are you, and why do you keep following me everywhere?"

The bovine man was unperturbed. "Who am I? I think it would spoil the fun for me to tell you that. You're a bright boy; you figure it out. And as I said before, I'm not following you. This is my home. I can't help it if you keep showing up where I live. Now, what were we talking about?"

"Nothing," I said, turning to walk away, irritated at the condescending "bright boy" comment, and hoping that he would not follow me.

"Oh, yes!" he said. "The power of this place. That's what we were talking about. The power of Bethlehem. The power of lies."

I stopped suddenly and said over my shoulder, "What?"

"Lies. The power of Bethlehem. It's the power of lies. I call Bethlehem the City of Lies."

"Is that why you call it your home?" I said, turning to face him.

He grinned at me. "I know what you're thinking, and no, I'm not the Father of Lies - more like the Second Cousin Once Removed of Lies, if I'm anything. But anyway, there's no reason to be snide about it. Even Reverend Brooks called Bethlehem a place of lies." I stared in disbelief. In a mocking, sing-song voice, he declared, "O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!" Then he added, with a wink, "Not much that's still around here, but the lies are as thick underfoot as desert sand!"

Without realizing it, I had fallen into step with the bovine man, and now we were walking - like best of friends - down the street that faced the church. I stepped around a pile of dung left by a pack animal and demanded, "What lies exactly are you talking about?"

He motioned to the church. "The lies of that church. The lie that your Savior was born in a place as holy and glittering and peaceful as that absurd little gilded grotto." He said the word savior with a demeaning condescension that irritated and offended me. He continued, "The lies of all your Christmas cards and your Christmas carols. Do you really think Mary and Joseph had glowing halos around their heads? Do you think the baby didn't cry out with the pains of new birth? And the animals - you think they kept silent all night out of reverence, just so little baby Jesus could get a good night's sleep? You want to know the truth?"

I resisted the temptation to respond, "The truth shall set you free." That comment would have impressed him even less the second time around. Instead, I said nothing.

"The truth," he continued more loudly, waving his arms about at all the crowds thronging the streets, yelling at one another, tripping over one another, exchanging money, and cursing loudly, "The truth is this." Then, with deliberation, he stomped his foot down into a pile of new dung, and repeated, "The truth is this." The fresh manure splattered up onto both his pant leg and mine, and its sickly aroma surrounded both of us. "But you can't put this on a Christmas card, can you? The terrible, revolting squalor, the stench, the horrific noise - you can't put any of that on a Christmas card. And if you could, you wouldn't because nobody would buy those cards.

"Come here," he said, grabbing me by the forearm and leading me toward a vendor's stand where carved sheep, camels, shepherds, wise men and holy families were sold at exorbitant rates. "Do you know what is missing from this array of statues?"

I studied the figures briefly, then shrugged.

"What's missing here is the same thing that's missing from all of your Christmas cards. The image of a Roman soldier picking up a baby by his cute little feet and putting a sword through him."

"What?" I exploded, both horrified and enraged.

"You stupid Christians," he said as he purchased an overpriced baby Jesus and casually stuffed him in his pocket, "You don't get it, do you? You want to remember the birth of your Christ as a moment of supreme beauty in the history of the world, so you ignore everything about the story. When was the last time you heard a Christmas sermon preached about King Herod ordering the slaughter of thousands of helpless infants? Are you afraid that people will give up on your Jesus if you try to put 'peace on earth' side by side with wholesale slaughter? 'Goodwill toward men,' you brag, but will anyone believe you if the symbol of your Savior is not a star, but a dead baby?"

Then, in a low but startlingly pure, clear voice, the bovine man began to sing a mournful dirge. All around us the din of the crowds turned into ever widening waves of silence, and the people paused to listen in hushed amazement as one solitary bass voice cried out, "That woe is me, poor child for thee; how shall I preserve this day, thou poor youngling, for whom I sing: bye bye lulay lulay."

The dirge went on for what seemed like an hour, and we all stood transfixed for that space of time. As the melancholy sounds died away into silence, I realized that tears were streaming down my cheeks - tears of sorrow for poor younglings, and tears of shame at my own inability to reconcile the birth of my Christ with the horrible deaths of untold innocents.

I barely noticed the crowds as they began to stir again from their silence. Within minutes, the clamor of the market had returned to the street as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Just like me, I thought, so eager to forget the things that seem inconvenient or emotionally uncomfortable.

I realized that, once again, the bovine man had disappeared, leaving me to feel utterly alone in the midst of a noisy throng.

I turned to look one last time at the Church of the Nativity, knowing that I would never complete my tour of that spectacular building. I would never again stoop to enter the Door of Humility. I would never return to kneel and leave my pilgrim's kiss on the silver star of the grotto. I walked away, alone and dismayed, toward my waiting hotel room.

Copyright 2008 Douglas. All rights reserved. has been granted non-exclusive rights to display this work. For permission to reprint this item, please contact the author.

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This post has been awarded 33 stars by 7 readers.
This post is Part 4 of a writing series titled The Bovine Man. The next part of this series can be found here: Home Again - Another Interlude.
This is a revised version of a post. Click here to view the original version

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