O Little Town of Bethlehem – in Prison

[Today’s post is by media journalist, pastor and author of Godcast: Transforming Encounters with God, Dan Betzer. Dan is a frequent visitor to Bethlehem in Israel. Here’s his account of one special night in the Cave of the Nativity.]

Transforming Encounters with God

Dan Betzer, author of Godcast: Transforming Encounters with God

At this time of year, the hearts of Christ’s followers turn toward Bethlehem. Not so tiny anymore. In these days Bethlehem sits within prison walls, the security “fence” put up by the Israelis to keep out suicide/homicide bombers. I can understand their reasoning, but, boy, is it ever a sad picture! It looks as though you’re driving into a penitentary. I still go in and out of Bethlehem every year. In fact, I was there just six months ago. The visitor now goes through Israeli security at the big main gate, then goes through “no man’s land” to Palestinian security. Yes, passports and all.

What a far cry from the good old days when I used to jump in a rental car and just run down there (six miles) to visit friends. I spent many enjoyable evenings with the Canavati’s, Palestinians who have lived in Bethlehem for generations. I also spent good times with Bishop Theofanis of the Greek Orthodox Church. In those days, the good bishop was administrator over all the Greek Orthodox churches in Judea, including the desert monasteries.

I remember one morning we drove way down to the end of the Kidron Valley near the Dead Sea where we visited the monks at the St. Saba monastery. It was built around 600 A.D. after the vicious Persian invasion that saw so many of their monks slaughtered. The old building hangs against the canyon walls like a pine tree sticking out of a hill and still has a dozen or so monks living there. No woman has EVER set foot in that building. I asked Theofanis about St. Saba who’s been dead now for 1400 years. I said, “where’s his grave?” The bishop said, “There isn’t one. But follow me, Dan.” We went into a small room off the main sanctuary and Theofanis turned on a light. There on a table, laid out in all his glory, was Saba! I mean the real Saba! It’s so dry down there that there was not a whole lot of deterioration on the saint’s body. (In fact, I have friends that don’t look that good even now!) The monks had put a glass cover over him. Strange looking right down at a man who hasn’t been with us for nearly a millenium and a half.

One night I was in my hotel room in Jerusalem and Theofanis called me. He said, “Want to join us priests in a prayer meeting in the morning?” I said, “Sure, where?” He answered, “In the cave of the nativity in Bethlehem. 7 o’clock. Don’t be late!” Wow!

I parked my car next morning in Manger Square and entered the church believed to be the oldest in the world, built by Queen Helena about 350 A.D. or so. It’s located right over the cave/stable where Jesus was born. Down in the close quarters, with incense smoke pouring from their holy sensors filling what little space there was, I knelt down several feet from the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. There I prayed with the priests for about an hour or so. I didn’t understand all their liturgy, but I felt their hearts. They loved the same Lord as I do!

Bethlehem has so many warm and gracious memories to me. Wonder what it was like that starry night so long ago when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth?”

Dan Betzer

[Godcast: Transforming Encounters with God is available in bookstores nationally or on the web. It is published by New Leaf Press in Green Forest, Arkansas.]

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