Cenacle Sister, Anne Powell, visited the Holy Land in 1999 and sent this memoir of her quest to see what many believe was Jesus’ birth place.
I set my heart on visiting Bethlehem. I learn where and how to catch the public transport from Jerusalem, pay the driver the small fare and climb into the minivan. Except for the windscreen, all the windows are curtained with dirty, dense fabric. All the other passengers are veiled Palestinian women.
I sit in the rear seat next to a young woman. We drive out of the city until our driver announces that we must all get out of the van because he is an Israeli; the van has Israeli registration and therefore cannot travel beyond the Arab checkpoint ahead. I don’t even grasp this announcement because I don’t understand Arabic except for ‘Alhamdulillah’ (Thanks be to God!) and ‘inshalla’ (God willing).
We tumble out of the minivan. I find myself in a barren, biblical landscape, surrounded by a cluster of veiled women. I am living in the Bible colliding with the present. In front of us is the checkpoint. One of the women, with eyes like a young doe, takes me by the arm and leads me off in the direction of the armed soldiers, lounging at the checkpoint. I feel for my passport. But we walk through without being questioned. My heart is a trapped bird in my mouth.
The young woman points out a badly dented blue car careering through dirt towards us. The driver is her uncle. He has a bearded, black-eyed accomplice. ‘Get in,’ she gestures. We do. Her eyes are kind. Introductions are made and we hurtle off through a desolate landscape of bombed homes, low saltbushes, and small, sad pockets of olive groves.
We travel for 10 minutes. Without any warning, the uncle stops the car and leans towards the back seat. He thumbs, ‘Get out!’ I have no understanding of what is happening. My mouth turns to ashes. I am clammy with fear. The bearded accomplice shouts in thickened English, ‘The turn off for Hebron is near. You cannot come with us!’ The young woman does not speak at all. Her uncle points me in the general direction of Bethlehem. I offer them some money which they take. The heat and dust create a grubby haze as the car roars off.
I have no idea where I am. I stand still and look around me. This is what I see:
skeletons of cars
armed young men
barricades of white rocks and concrete blocks
ruins of olive groves
I turn my head into the hot wind towards the city of Bethlehem. I think of Christmas bells ringing joy and good tidings. I think of home with the beach and pohutukawa. I think of peace and I think of war.
Except for the slapping wind, everything is silent. I feel watched. I notice a UN jeep patrolling the tracks ahead. This does not increase my sense of safety.
The heat is intense. A car passes and I wave out. The driver stops and assures me I am near Manger Square. I reach the edge of the deserted square, bordered with tall palms and high stone walls. There is the Church of the Nativity. I bend to enter through the low door which once caused moors to stall on horseback. Inside, grime coated icons and walls blackened with candle smoke capture me.
My feet follow the sound of song. I climb down a winding stair to a grotto. There is the silver-pointed star embedded in the floor of cracked, white marble. Heavy red drapes with tassels hang on either side of the star. Above the star cluster far too many silver and gold oil burners for my liking. But the grace of the place holds me. The group of French pilgrims leave. Their Taize chant haunts the stairs.
I know that above me, out in the square, incarnation is embodied in armed soldiers, veiled Palestinian women trailing children by the hand, wreckage of homes and land.
The land of the Holy One who pitched a tent among us.
There is fullness of silence.
Before me is that star.
From the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem.