‘O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.’ The familiar first line of one of my favourite carols and a ‘must have’ when I am planning a carol service. The words by Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) paint a picture in our imagination, of an insignificant middle eastern town that became the focal point of God’s glory revealed in the birth of our Lord Immanuel, ‘God with us’.
In September 1999, I took part in a Pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine; my third visit in fact to the Holy lands of the bible. We visited Bethlehem as many tourists do, but as an addition to the usual itinerary, our group visited Al Shurooq school for blind children, who were predominantly from poor Palestinian Christian and Muslim families living in the West Bank. Nearly all the children board at the school during the week, some may go home at weekends so long as it is safe to do so. Sadly, a few children are abandoned by their families, in which case the school is their home for a period. Helena, the founder of the school and headteacher at the time of our visit, was also blind. She was such an inspiration being a Palestinian Chris- tian, with a passion for providing a caring and inclusive environment in which the children could be educated and rehabili- tated, enabling them to develop the skills to integrate into society and family life back home.
Although the weather was still hot and sunny at the time of our trip, the children presented a Nativity play especially for our visit and I can tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye amongst us, as we watched the familiar story unfold. We looked on with de- light and admiration for the beautiful boys and girls performing so confidently. They were delighted to have visitors to their school and were proud to show us what they had been learning. The children sang a carol in English, which Helena was very keen for us to know was an integral part of the school’s curriculum. We visited the room where the braille machines were used to create a braille library, not only for school pupils to read books but also for blind people out in the community who could borrow and return books.
I have to say, that our visit to Al Shurooq School was more meaningful than the obligatory visit to the tourist grotto that marks the spot where it is claimed Jesus was born. Whether it is the actual place is not important; my abiding memory is of those wonderful children who radiated joy and the hope of a better life, despite the disadvantages they faced. As if they didn’t have enough to deal with being sight impaired within a culture that does not easily accept disability, these children reside in one of the most volatile regions in the world, where even today, political and religious conflict cast a long and threatening shadow over their daily lives.
‘O little town of Bethlehem’ is not so little anymore, it is now a city with approximately 25,000 residents. Since I was last there, the dividing wall cuts off many Palestinians from accessing their own farmland and attending their traditional places of worship. Although Jerusalem is only 6.5 miles away most residents of the West Bank are not permitted to enter Israel. Some do not know from day to day whether they will be able to pass through the border check-point to get to their places of work in Jerusalem. The Israelis continue to clear land in Palestinian territory to create new Israeli residential enclaves, effectively surrounding Bethlehem from all sides.
Psalm 112.6 says this, ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure.’ I think Jesus would weep all over again for Jerusalem and Bethlehem, if he were to return today. In the same spirit of the psalmist, we could also ex- tend this prayer for peace to Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is still the Prince of Peace and Saviour of the world. Christ’s peace is not only a gift that we can receive, but one that we can offer to others who are living through troubled and anxious times in their lives.
May the Peace of the Christ-child rest upon each one of us in this festive season and throughout the New Year to come.
Many blessings – – – Reverend Joanne