Fast, the night is fading

Christmas Eve 1980 and it was the end of a long journey. With the next day off we’d driven a rental car up from the Negev Desert, where we were involved in the construction of a new airbase. Now the sky-blue Peugeot was perched on a rocky outcrop across the valley from Bethlehem.

After setting up the tent and throwing a blanket on the hood of the car to serve as a settee, we made martinis and, while the holiest of Christmas carols rose-up from the tape player, leaned back to watch night descend on yonder town; its lights shining ever-more brightly and our brains swirling in wonder…plus a trace of inebriation. Ultimately we reached the unanimous conclusion that it would be nice just to get a bit…closer.

The road near storied Shepherd’s Field (“on earth peace, goodwill toward men,”) was the only one open to traffic, so that’s where we parked before setting out on foot, using the massive neon star atop the Church of the Nativity as our beacon.  It was farther away than it appeared and it took a while to make it to the heavily guarded barricade surrounding Manger Square.  It took even longer to work our way to one of the fortified entranceways on either end where everyone was prodded and frisked twice by the hyper-vigilant  security detail.

In the square itself hoards of “Christmas Pilgrims” brushed (and shoved) elbows with a fascinating continuum of local characters. And while recorded music drifted from loudspeakers mounted somewhere above the neon, ubiquitous vendors hawked their postcards, religious icons and camelhair hats.  It also became apparent that many here had recently partaken in refreshment (and were on the lookout for more) from any number of cafes and restaurants tucked within the barricade.  Who were we to argue?

While the glasses clinked and the evening wore on a series of discordant but enthusiastic church choirs from all over Christendom took turns serenading the masses from an outdoor-stage.  Though most awaited the midnight mass, our goal was to find a way into the ancient Church of the Nativity, which wasn’t easy on such a singular evening when only special groups were allowed entry.

So we watched and waited until one came along, led by a tall, bespectacled pastor. The English matron bringing up the tail told us of their affiliation with the Anglican Cathedral of St. George in Jerusalem and shrugged when our Lisa, from North London, mentioned that she’d been a member of the Church of England for her entire life.

Seeing this as our chance we fell into their queue while it wended around the side of the boxy church, passed armed guards and proceeded through a dingy courtyard into the large, candlelit nave.  When the pastor came to shepherd-in his flock from the rear he looked at us over the tops of his glasses and never said a word.

“Our” group worked its way across the nave to the High Altar, where stairs led below into the Grotto of the Nativity.  We silently followed into the luminous, candle-lit chamber where everyone faced a very old, silver star set in marble marking…the…sacred…spot.

I looked around and noticed there were others here as well.  There was a group of nuns who sang like angels, and by the far wall an extraordinary sect of ebony-skinned people from the Celestial Church of Christ in Benin, dressed in immaculate, white robes, each solemnly kneeling toward that star.  Singing in French they knocked their foreheads on the floor whenever the Lord was mentioned in their song.

Next, one of the attendant sisters handed out sheets of lyrics and we earnestly sang “Away in the Manger.” It was an awesome, enchanting moment that I carry with me like a spot out of time, and it passed in a twinkling.

After exiting through the aptly named Door of Humility (only chest high it was constructed to keep mounted horsemen out of the sanctuary) we waved goodbye to our Anglican friends and found a table at a nearby coffee bar, where we nursed our glasses, said little and watched part of the Latin Mass being televised on a screen hanging down the side of the police station.  Now after midnight it was time to leave Bethlehem.

I, of course claimed to know the way and, certain of a shortcut, led our little expedition down a dark and crowded alley. Half an hour later…we arrived at the other side of Manger Square.  Again, we went through the security rigmarole at a different entryway, then pushed through the congested square and, after a stop for a falafel, attempted another escape.

And once more we were confronted with that awful, dark and crowded street. So this time we went left, away from the square and onto a road that descended into a valley and…(oh no!)…intersected with a dump, replete with barking dog.  We were lost, an astonishing feat in a town with but two major streets. And here the murky road ran sharply up in both directions.

Yes, I thought, this had all been a remarkable experience but now it was well after 2:00 a.m. and getting cold. So much for the supposed magic of Christmas, a callow notion if ever there was one.

Eventually a pair of headlights pierced the gloom and we roundly waved at the battered old van behind them, swearing sulkily when it drove by. But then it turned around.  I for one, got a little nervous, especially when the van stopped and its driver, who wore a keffiyeh (think Yasser Arafat), hopped out to ask in extremely broken English where we might be going.

“The road to Herodian,” I murmured.  The man’s eyes widened a little and he asked me to repeat myself, which I did.  Clearly we were off track and my directions were a little vague.Then he told us to get in…which we did, joining a host of others in the unlit van.

We learned that these were Arab Christian doctors and nurses just off duty from their hospital shifts and we were riding in their ambulance, which they regularly used to get home.  I did my best to describe the whereabouts of our car while to our absolute delight the women sitting cross-legged in the back began to sing in Arabic, with the men joining in on the chorus.

The singing was wonderful, a Christmas song I was told, and the van was warm and cozy.  So much so that I actually regretted it when we finally found our car, there by Shepherd’s Field.  I offered them money.  They refused, for now it was Christmas.  Then I remembered the bottle of gin decorated with garlands and stowed in the trunk for martinis.  This they gratefully accepted and singing once again, joyously drove on.

I awoke hours later to the sound of church bells pealing across the valley in that now familiar town. We made a fire near the tent and had a simple breakfast of fruit, nuts and cheese, washed down with instant coffee and Israeli liquer here on this balmy Christmas morning, with the soft blue-sky over Bethlehem looking every bit like a hand painted postcard.  I took some photographs, which have faded badly and certainly don’t do the moment justice.

In fact my memory of the remainder of that day has faded even more than the pictures. Though my memory of that simple Yuletide breakfast shines as brightly as David’s Royal City did on Christmas Eve,  as do those memories of the night that preceded it, when I came to believe, once and forever more, in the abiding magic of Christmas.

Performed by James Taylor, the lyrics to this Christmas Eve selection were written by Sally Stevens with music by Dave Grusin.


Who Comes This Night

 Who comes this night, this wintry night,

As to the lowly manger?

The Shepherds and the Kings did come

To welcome in the stranger.

 Who sends this song upon the air

To ease the soul that’s aching?

To still the cry of deep despair

And heal the heart that’s breaking.

 Brother Joseph bring the light

Fast, the night is fading.

And who will come this wintry night

To where the stranger’s waiting?

Who comes this night, with humble heart,

To give the fullest measure?

A gift of purest love to bring

What good and worthy treasure.

 Brother Joseph bring the lamb

For they are asking for him.

The children come this starry night

To lay their hearts before him.

For those who would the stranger greet

Must lay their hearts before him

And raise their song in voices sweet

To worship and adore him.

 Brother Joseph bring the light

Fast, the night is fading

And who will come this wintry night

To where the stranger’s waiting.

Brother Joseph bring the lamb

For they are asking for him.

The children come this starry night

To lay their hearts before him.

Pure of heart this starry night

To lay their hearts before him.

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