Saturday, November 29, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent: Tales from Bethlehem, Reflections on the Weekly Lectionary in Advent

I invite you to join me --- This is the first in a series of meditations for your Advent devotions, reflecting on the weekly texts for Advent through my experiences on two trips to Israel and Palestine this summer and fall.

Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us"....Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2.15-19)

The stories of Jesus’ birth are pilgrimage stories—Mary and Joseph walking the rocky hills and winding roads on their way to Bethlehem, the shepherds’ trek to the stable and the Holy Family’s flight along the coast to Egypt.

Today Bethlehem is in the West Bank, land designated by the Oslo Accord to be administered by the Palestinian Authority. But on my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I saw that the reality on the ground is far different. Like Mary and Joseph, traveling pregnant from Nazareth to Bethlehem on the orders of the occupying Roman government, Palestinians’ lives today are shaped by the whims of the Israeli soldiers occupying their towns, guarding the checkpoints, controlling all movement. As I entered Bethlehem in June, 2008, I was shocked at the changes in the three years since my first visit. In the summer of 2005, when our bus arrived in Bethlehem, the Israeli security wall was being constructed. We saw the 30-foot high concrete barrier as it snaked around hills, cutting through Bethlehem’s olive groves, and, like a holiday parade, marching down the yellow line in the center of the main road into Bethlehem. That summer there were gaps in the wall, places where you could see through to the other side or walk around the wall….like the time we walked over a little hill to catch a bus into Jerusalem, avoiding the hassle at the checkpoint and the expense of two taxis.

When I returned in 2008, the Wall at the main entrance to Bethlehem was completed. There was a new checkpoint, with flower gardens and welcome banners proclaiming “Peace be with you.” Peace for the American tourists, with their blue passports, but not for the residents of Bethlehem. While our bus breezed through with a welcoming wave and a smile from the Israeli soldiers, Bethlehem residents stood in long lines to get to work. They must apply for permits weeks ahead of time, and only for a specific purpose. And, even if they are lucky enough to get a permit, they must wait, sometimes hours, every time they leave Bethlehem—daily for those who work in Jerusalem. We were told the beautification of the checkpoint came from USAID money, earmarked to make the checkpoints more “humane.” More humane for us perhaps, but not for the Palestinians on their way to work.

Today the wall divides the main road into Bethlehem, right down the middle—separating the houses on one side from their neighbors across the street. The stores selling olive wood nativity sets and religious jewelry are mostly closed now. Few tourists visit Bethlehem—they are told it is too dangerous. And no one wants to stop on this dreary street anymore, suffocating beneath the wall.

And Mary kept these things and pondered them in her heart… These meditations were written for pondering during Advent, the time when we wait for a miracle—the birth of a savior for the whole world. Bethlehem today is in desperate need of salvation, but as they wait for their miracle, these faithful people of the Holy Land—in Bethlehem, Hebron, Jerusalem, Gaza, Ramallah—take God’s promises to heart and use their energy to create a new reality for themselves and their children, a world where children are educated, the sick are healed and all can celebrate their rich Arab culture.

As I read the weekly Sunday texts for Advent this year, I remember the land I walked on my pilgrimage and the amazing people I met. These are some of the stories I heard—stories of desperation and stories of hope from the Christians, Jews and Muslims living today on the holy land of Jesus’ birth.
—Jan Miller, Advent, 2008