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Middle East MOMA Dispatch

A Little Town Called Bethlehem
December 22, 1999

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In Christ's birthplace - now called the Grotto of the Nativity - a beautiful tapestry depicts his birth.
The Gospel of Luke provides us with the best account of the birth of Jesus:

Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.

This was the first census taken while Quirinus was governor of Syria. And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem because he was of the house and family of David in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was with child.

Vocabulary Box

mosaics - a picture or design made by putting small colored pieces of stone or tile into a surface
elusive - difficult to capture or find
And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.

And she gave birth to her first-born son, and she wrapped him in clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."

(Luke 2:1-7)

We visited the Church of the Nativity, where the birthplace of Jesus--now called the Grotto of the Nativity-- is located. Jesus was born in a cave on a spot marked by a star (later, of course, he was moved to a manger, next to a stable).

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The silver star marks the birth site of Christ.
Over this cave, the Emperor Constantine built a church, dedicated by his mother, Queen Helena, in 339 AD. It has been in continuous service since then, making it one of the world's oldest churches in use. In 530 AD, the Emperor Justinian improved Constantine's building with magnificent mosaics on the floor and the walls, wanting it to be the most beautiful church in the Holy Land. As a child, I had always wanted to see some of these mosaics, and they are really magnificent.

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larger view
Watch your head as you enter the Church of the Nativity!
At the adjoining Franciscan Church of Saint Catherine, workmen were frantically putting the finishing touches on the altar. In this church, every December 24 the Catholics celebrate midnight mass, which is broadcast all over the world.

The mass will be special this year, because shortly after the ceremony we will celebrate the coming of the new millennium.

I've been thinking of the hymn that we sing during Christmas called "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The second line in the hymn is "How still we see thee lie."

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An artistic map of Bethlehem.
In fact, Bethlehem is far from being a little town-it's a very busy center now. And it's far from being still. Over time, it has been occupied by Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Mamluks, Turks, Britons, Jordanians and Israelis.

Now it is under the control of the Palestinian National Authority.

The next line of the song says: "Above thy sweet and dreamless sleep, The silent stars go by." Indeed, the silent stars go by but the sweet and dreamless sleep remains elusive for present-day Bethlehem. One day, we hope... and there are good signs.

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This sign expresses the rule of the Palestinian National Authority.
There was the kindness of the Palestinian lady and gentleman who gave us directions. We wanted to get back to Jerusalem and needed to know which taxi service to take.

Making the short trip back with us were two American college students who had just made their last visit to their host families in Bethlehem. They had come to study the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but in Bethlehem they found families who took them in and whom they became attached to. The students were eager to return to their homes, but part of them remained here in Bethlehem.

- Christine, Monica's mother

Abeja - Bethlehem: May the Millennium Bring Peace
Kevin - Theodore Herzl: A Jewish Visionary
Abeja - Nazareth: Trouble Brewing in Jesus' Hometown
Nancy - St. Helena Hits the Spot
Kavitha - The Facts of Fasts
Team - The New Millennium: All Dressed Up and Nowhere To Go
Kavitha - Tidings of Comfort and JoyŠand Exploitation: The Buck Stops With You

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Monica and her mom, Christine!