Bethlehem holds a unique place in the hearts of all Christians. The Nativity, described in both the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, lays claim to Bethlehem as the location where the Son of God entered the world for our salvation. “For today in the city of David, a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2:11). The imagery that the Evangelist Luke invites us to ponder conjures thoughts of this “little town of Bethlehem” on the not far from Jerusalem and the journey that the Holy Family was obligated to make, by decree and divine providence.
In the Old Testament, Bethlehem is recognized as the city where David was from and where he was crowned king of Israel. The genealogy of Jesus, provided in both the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, identifies Joseph as a descendant of King David and thus the reason why Joseph of the “House of David” and Mary went to Bethlehem by decree from Caesar Augustus “that the whole world should be enrolled” (Luke 2:1).
Bethlehem celebrates the Nativity of our Lord—every day. Since the birth of Christ, pilgrims have been coming to Bethlehem to celebrate the incredible way God decided to enter into our presence, as an infant We recall that night with the infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, shepherds and the Magi, each year when we celebrate Christmas.
Mary and Joseph would not recognize modern day Bethlehem, an expansive metropolis very different from the images that adorn our Christmas cards. Also, they wouldn’t struggle to find somewhere to stay in this thriving city, arguably the jewel in the Palestinian crown. Located in the West Bank, Bethlehem has a population of approximately 25,000 people. Although it is now predominately a Muslim city, it is still home to a significant Palestinian Christian community. Here, Christians and Muslims live harmoniously and provide a witness to the world what the power of faith, hope and love can do.
This beautiful city, bursting with biblical heritage and wonder continuously attracts multitudes of pilgrims coming to venerate the birthplace of Jesus Christ at the Church of the Nativity built over the grotto that Mary gave birth to Jesus. Manger Square is at the heart of the city and the Mosque of Omar, just opposite the Church of the Nativity, emphases Bethlehem’s religious transformation.
Today, Bethlehem thrives on tourism. Gift shops, restaurants and hotels have become part of its modern identity, welcoming the incredible number of Christian pilgrims desiring to encounter Jesus and reminisce of that silent night, holy night when Christ the Savior was born.
Although Bethlehem will always be known as the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, today it has made a name for itself that goes beyond it’s biblical significance. Two institutions that have put the city on the map in the fields of education and medicine are Bethlehem University and the Holy Family Hospital.
Bethlehem University is the first and largest institution of higher education in Palestine, with an Institute of Hotel Management and Tourism that one of the most popular degrees at the University. The Holy Family Hospital is the largest neo-natal facility in Palestine, which delivers life, peace and hope to all of Palestine. Both institutions provide witness to the world that both Christians and Muslims can prosper and thrive in a less than ideal situation that is the State of Palestine.
Living within the confines of a security wall that separates Palestine from modern Israel is the reality of life in Bethlehem. During his visit to Bethlehem, Pope Francis said, “The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable.” He emphasized that both sides need to make sacrifices to create two states, with internationally recognized borders, for the good of their own people. The iconic wall that Pope Francis at which prayed and alluded to is far from the scene found on Christmas cards and manger scenes. The wall is covered in emotive graffiti and messages of hope, peace and justice that provide a sobering contrast to the touristic Bethlehem.
Still, it is the biblical significance of Bethlehem that will always attract the faithful. St. Peter Julian Eymard put into words our desire to encounter Jesus and to witness the birthplace of our Savior when he said “the Eucharist began at Bethlehem in Mary’s arms. It was she who brought to humanity the Bread for which it was famishing, and which alone can nourish it. It was she who took care of that Bread for us. It was she who nourished the Lamb whose life-giving Flesh we feed upon.” How providential it is that the Son of God was born in Bethlehem, the “House of Bread” and that is exactly where we find him each time we celebrate the sacrifice of the Eucharist.
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