Can Mary Get to Bethlehem? PART 4 OF 4
In this series, we are contemplating hypothetical journeys from our homes to Bethlehem, and more specifically the questions “If I were Mary, and I had to go to Bethlehem today, how would I get there?” and, “What might I see, think and experience along the way?”
I: If I were Mary, I guess I don’t have that far to go to get to Bethlehem. It’s just a ten minute drive from my Jerusalem home to manger square, or a one and a half hour walk. Or, at least it should be, or it would be, if not for the looming wall protruding from the ground to tower over our heads. I suppose I’m giving birth over a decade too late; Israelis were allowed to visit Bethlehem before that time. But now, as an Israeli Jew, it’s illegal for me to enter Bethlehem. (I suppose I would feel like some Palestinian women do today, when they’re very pregnant, trying to cross a checkpoint to go to the doctor or to the hospital to give birth.)
In order to get into Bethlehem, I need to bypass Israeli soldiers, as they would prevent me from entering. So I can’t go through the main checkpoint 300, which is just as well. It makes me nervous to see the bars and concrete, nervous to go somewhere I’m not allowed to be, even if I feel justified in my need to be there. I have to try another route, the back way through Beit Jala. With a car it would take about 30-35 minutes, going through Area C, and then coming face to face with that big red sign marking the beginning of Area A. It wouldn’t calm my nerves, but I would go ahead and enter. If I were coming by foot, this way would be very difficult coming through the tunnels with no sidewalks for walking, and going over the rocky mountainous terrain, up and down and up and down, slowly ascending toward Beit Jala. Walking this way would take a few hours, but in my third trimester, let’s double that...so maybe half a day or more.
Okay, so we’re finally entering Beit Jala, but wait, there are soldiers in the area. There isn’t a checkpoint going in to the area, but they can stop us if they think we’re suspicious. If we are stopped by soldiers, that might be the end of our trip. If we managed to get by them though, we would cross into Beit Jala.
We wouldn’t really know where to go at that point. I have no idea where the closest hospital is located, but manger square is somewhere downward, so we descend the steep, windy roads down toward Bethlehem. If Palestinian police thought we look suspicious and stop us, we might be sent back to a checkpoint and Israeli soldiers. Mostly, we’d get strange looks, and well-meaning folks might try and help, then ask why we’ve come (Israeli Jews, to give birth in Bethlehem?, that would be a cause for conversation). We might be told we shouldn’t be there, and we would really be better off in Jerusalem.
Abbsi: I am so close to Nativity Church, maybe five minutes away, maybe less depending on how fast we go. The road to Bethlehem is smooth and easy from my home, likely much better than it was 2000 years ago. It is paved, and there is no uneven terrain or need for a donkey to carry me. Anyone could simply help me go.
But believe me when I tell you, I would be sad, so sad, to have my baby in Bethlehem. It is not a matter of whether I am able to get there, because nothing can prevent me from doing so. There is no checkpoint blocking me, no unpleasant interaction with soldiers that would upset me. There is more to it. I would be sad, because I know that a child who is born in Bethlehem, my child, would be treated as the least among all the nations. We are a nation that some of the strongest nations don’t recognize, don’t legitimate. I know that my child will not be proud to have a passport, not because he has shame being called Palestinian, but because he will soon discover as he grows that he has no rights to travel freely. He will have what is called a “second-hand passport,” that no one cares to have or looks forward to receiving. His rights will be consistently trampled on, ignored, and his national identity demonized and delegitimized by Israel that controls so much of our present and future.
This is what I am thinking as a mother. Do I really want my child to have fewer advantages, more limited opportunities than other kids his age in other places? I know it is a divine decision that he be born in Bethlehem, but if I could choose to leave the country before the end of my pregnancy, so I can travel and live in a peaceful country that accepts me as a human, that would accept my child as an equal, maybe I would.
Many thoughts run through my mind on this short five minute trip to Bethlehem. I know my son’s birth, his childhood, his life, will be filled with emotional and psychological stress. A gigantic wall will block his view of the rolling hills toward Jerusalem, a reminder that our right to self-determination is dependent on another that holds so tightly to their self-expression that it chokes ours. We look up from our home and see the looming settlements, built as a fortress above us, built on land stolen from our people. And then we glance to the skies above, as we stand on the hills where the angels will appear to the shepherds, where they will announce that my son’s birth will be a joy for all people, where they will speak peace to humanity. This is my home, filled with so much of the divine and profane, images and memories of hope and occupation.
As I walk to Bethlehem, the thoughts that fill my mind are fearful, not pleasant. What can a future hold for a child of Bethlehem?
As we end this series, we hope we shared a snapshot of what life is like for us today. The circumstances for Israeli Jews, Israeli Palestinians, Palestinian Jerusalemites, and West Bank Palestinians to travel to and give birth in Bethlehem are complicated and less than ideal. Our journeys are less physically arduous than the one Mary and Joseph would have experienced on the first Christmas, but our stories as presented here show the continued division, tension and strife that we experience today. We would bring a child into a complicated world, a divided world, with physical symbols of this separation visible before our eyes.
Jesus came into a similar world, one marked by strife, conflict and pain. His response, his obedience, and his vision changed everything. We see in his life, and his gift, God’s desire to connect with and restore humanity. Into the chaos, God sent his son, offering a vision of peace, joy, and hope for all people.
During this holiday season, as we contemplate the incarnation, Emmanuel -- God with us, let us also remember the community of the faithful throughout the world. The situation in which we live is oppressive for some of us, but saddening for all of us. At the same time, we remember the other Christian communities throughout the Middle East who are suffering much more than us. Jesus’ birth brought hope for all nations, and Christmas is a reminder of this hope. May this Christmas be a reminder that God is with you. May Jesus be your hope and strength, sustaining you as he sustains us.
From Beit Sahour, East and West Jerusalem, Ramallah, the coast lands of Israel and the Galilee, we wish you a blessed holiday season.