BY CHRISTINE HOGAN
The story of the birth of Christ is fundamental to the education of every Christian child in the world. From Matthew, but mainly Luke, we have details on the trip for the census, the birth, and the flight to Egypt.
You know them by heart. The parents, on the way from Nazareth, are caught out as Mary begins to labour. Joseph can find no space for his wife at the inn in Bethlehem, and they end up themselves in a cow byre in time for the birth of the Son of God.
This story is played out in Sunday schools around the world every Christmas. The tallest boy or girl plays Joseph. The sweetest girl is Mary. The roles of the Magi are handed out to the more responsible or capable kids and and the rest of the rest of the kids divided into shepherds and angels.
It is a story so deep in our DNA as Christians that it is impossible to imagine a life without the beautiful, calming repetition of the story of the nativity. We are in the Christmas season again, so it was incredibly timely that our CathNews pilgrims found themselves in Bethlehem's Manger Square on Thursday morning.
Behind it sits the Church of the Nativity, with its short door and worn steps into the nave. Part of a complex which also includes the Church of St Catherine, Virgin and Martyr, a Franciscan cloister and guest house.
The Church of the Nativity sits over the cave in which traditions says the Virgin was delivered. You get to the site now down some highly polished and steep steps, taking care not to be trampled by enthusiastic Spanish evangelising Christians who virtually throw themselves into the grotto.
Our little group was fortunate.
We were there so early – no trouble with the checkpoint in the wall which divides Israel from Palestine (sometimes this can take hours) – that we were try first group in the church. Down the crypt, Mass was about to take place in the manger area, so our little lot retired to a far wall and were encouraged to sing. John and Leo, two of the CN group, led us in Silent Night.
The words had never seemed so poignant, or so appropriate, as our voices soared and filled the tiny space. There were several moist eyes as some of us were overcome by a wonderful moment mod faith, and hope, and love.
Bethlehem has several sites of distinction, including the Shepherds Field, where shepherds watched their flocks by night all seated on the ground an angel of the Lord came down. Disappointingly, no shepherds today, just lots of rocks.
It is also home to Bethlehem University, a joint venture of the Vatican and the De La Salle Brothers. The Chancellor of the University is the Papal Nuncio to Jerusalem, Archbishop Lazzarotto, and the Vice-Chancellor is a New Zealander, Br Peter Bray.
Br Peter welcomed our group to the university, and introduced some of the stars of his students. These included a second year, Lena, from Hebron, and Hanadi, a fourth year student who is studying biology and medical science, and Najib, in the business school.
These wonderful young people talked to our group about their lives and their hopes, something which might seem hard to keep alive in a place where the unemployment rate is so high (35 per cent in Bethlehem) and family incomes are so low.
What would these Bethlehem stars like the world to know about young Pelestinians like them? “The truth,” said Najib.
The university comprises 700 Christian students, and some 2300 Muslims, and it seems a model for peaceful coexistence here. But this haven of peace and learning is on something of a knife edge. Br Peter explained that nearly 70% of its $14 million funding comes from donations.
It costs $4000 a year to keep a student here; and most of them pay no more than $700 for their tuition. It is difficult for Br Peter to retain staff. One of his professors got tired of having to cross the check points twice a day, including the delays and the abuse incurred by the guards.
They live under difficult conditions, which became obvious when I talked to Hanady over lunch. There are 10 members in her family, including seven children, and a grandmother. Hanady is finishing her degree soon, and going to marry her fiancé, who has residency in New York.
She is hoping to get a scholarship to help her study for her Masters, and then her doctorate. Hanady is looking forward to living in New York. This star of Bethlehem is going west.
Br Peter, who has been here for nearly five years and who is hoping to have his contract extended, has his work cut out for him, as he and his team try to build the leaders that Palestine will need in the future.
Next week, the story of Magdala...
Christine Hogan is the Publisher for the faith-based publications produced by Church Resources. She is currently on the CathNews Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and is blogging regularly for the duration of the journey.
Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.