“I think we in the West have often sanitised, romanticised, and tamed Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus through our nativity sets and carols,” writes Good Samaritan Sister Marella Rebgetz SGS.
Tantur Ecumenical Institute is situated on a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
I arrived here two months ago, in the evening, to begin a three-month sabbatical.
From the verandah of the refectory you can see Bethlehem a little more than a kilometre away.
I was immediately, and continue to be, entranced by the lights of Bethlehem in the soft darkness, which whisper promises of an eternity born into history and geography, and a story of a Hope that is real.
However, waking the next morning to see Bethlehem in the unforgiving light of a hot, cloudless day began the harsh process of confronting my romantic image of Bethlehem and, entwined through it, my understanding of the Christmas blessings of peace, hope and love.
I quickly realised that my unreflected-upon image of Bethlehem was that of my childhood, shaped by carols such as O Little Town of Bethlehem and idyllic pictures on Christmas cards.
I had unconsciously envisioned Bethlehem as a small, picturesque village in a fairly soft rural setting, with quaint houses, and a number of pubs where travellers could stay.
My image was probably more akin to postcards of rural villages in England with cattle softly lowing, but framed with swaying date palms, the occasional gentleman dressed in colourful robes riding a camel, and a night sky painted with stars and the odd angel.
Though it might have been a small town of fewer than a thousand people at the time of Jesus’ birth, today Bethlehem has a population of about 27,000 people, most of whom have moved into the area since the State of Israel came into existence in 1948. As a result, it’s a sprawling township of cheap, low-rise, flat-roofed, grey concrete apartment blocks.
While most of the towns in Israel that date back to antiquity have at their heart a vibrant market, the old market area of Bethlehem lacks any distinctive character. Even those touting their goods do so without notable enthusiasm or persistence.
The suburban streets are strewn with rubbish. Water is limited and unreliable, so there are almost no gardens, apart from the occasional pot of flowers on a balcony.
Even olive trees, scrawny with their dull-coloured leaves, are scarce, and the surrounding land is stony, hilly and arid. There is a miasma of poor-ness (though I wouldn’t describe it as poverty) hanging over the town.