There will be a rare full moon this Christmas Eve. While the fog from Central Florida’s unseasonably warm December may prevent many of us from seeing it here, I remember with clarity a nearly full moon at Christmas Eve that will likely be unmatched during my lifetime.
In December 1994, I was awarded a scholarship as a seminarian to travel to Israel for a two week seminar on Jesus and the historical holy land. Our group of 45 seminarians and theological scholars from around the country assembled at John F. Kennedy International in New York to board the Tower Airlines flight to Ben Gurion in Jerusalem.
It was an incredible two weeks. Our travels took us from the Negev Desert to the south to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee in the north and out to the ruins of Caesaria on the Mediterranean. We had been allowed into the excavations on the southern steps of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This was the place where Jesus is recorded in both Luke and Matthew’s gospels as lamenting the coming destruction of the city by its Roman overlords:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Many of us took our shoes off that day to feel the recently unearthed rough stone beneath our feet, to touch the steps that Jesus may have stood upon in the hours before his death. An overwhelming feeling of despair swept over me as I stood that day looking out toward Bethlehem in the far distance.
“You’ll be disappointed…”
Even though we were in Israel at Christmas, we found to our surprise that Christmas lights were displayed all over the country. Many Muslims celebrate Christmas as Jesus is seen as a prophetic figure in that tradition. And Christians have been in this holy land for many years as a minority religious presence first among Muslims and later among Israeli Jews.
A rabbi friend of mine had warned me I would not like what I found at both the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. “Harry, I know you and you will be greatly disappointed,” he had said. And he was right. The interiors of those churches are divided up between competing factions of the Christian tradition, lines painted down ancient flooring to denote where Eastern Orthodox, Armenian and Coptic space ended and Roman Catholic space began. It was, as my rabbi friend had warned me, disgusting.
Even so, a number of us had decided that we simply had to celebrate Christmas Eve by going to Bethlehem for Midnight Mass. Our instructor had tried his best to dissuade us from this plan but we charged ahead, summoning taxis to take us the 9 miles from our hotel on the Mount of Olives to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
While I am convinced there is no time in Israel which is not tense, with its time bombs of settler communities with their luxury condos and swimming pools guarded by IDF troops dotting the landscape of increasingly desperate Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza, this time was particularly tense. The Palestinian Authority had just officially adopted a flag and insisted it be flown over Bethlehem at Christmas. The Israeli government had initially refused, arguing that this would grant a legitimacy to a people and authority they did not recognize but eventually worked out a compromise on where the flags could be flown.
We encountered eight checkpoints between Jerusalem and Bethlehem that night. At each checkpoint we were required to show our passports and explain where we were going. Upon arriving at Manger Square, we were required to pass through metal detectors and then go into a plywood room to be bodily searched by Israeli Defense Guards (IDF). Once through the screening, we emerged into Manger Square only to encounter IDF troops with automatic weapons standing atop the two story buildings surrounding the plaza.
Very quickly we found out that our cab driver had misled us, that we had no passes into the service in the Church of the Nativity which was reserved for Roman Catholic and local dignitaries but not for those of us commoners who fervently wished to attend the mass. Ironically, it was the descendants of Herod and the occupying Roman Empire who stood above the grotto over which the church had been erected to celebrate the birth of the peasant carpenter’s child Herod would fail to kill as an infant and the Empire would succeed in crucifying a mere 32 years later.
Bedlam in Bethlehem
Out in the plaza, things were hopping. A large screen displayed the closed circuit broadcast from the church’s interior next to which a set of bleachers hosted several American evangelical church choirs. In the bars and restaurants surrounding the plaza, drunken tourists celebrated. The noise grew louder by the hour and people began to throw their finished beer bottles up into the air only to have them come crashing down and splintering into a thousand fragments amid the crowd.
But the beer bottles were not the only danger. The only bathroom in the complex was down a set of stairs into a dank, poorly lit basement that became increasingly nasty over the night with urine and waste paper all over the floor. Having travelled in a number of developing countries over my lifetime, that did not bother me so much. It was the comments being made to me about being an American in tones that suggested this was not a good thing that made me increasingly apprehensive.
About two hours into this experience, I decided I’d had enough. It was three hours until midnight. I had had enough mind numbing praise music from American evangelical kids and dealt with enough push and shove in the crowded square of increasingly intoxicated revelers in a scene more akin to Times Square on New Year’s Eve than the silent, holy night of Christmas Eve. A number of us gathered, left the secured area, hailed a cab and headed back to Jerusalem.
In retrospect, I am not sorry I went. Though it was not a particularly happy experience, I learned a lot in that short time. Today the road to Bethlehem requires crossing through a military checkpoint in the midst of the massive concrete barrier separating the settlements on the edge of Jerusalem from the increasingly Islamic Bethlehem from which Arabic Christians are slowly departing. The closest I got to Bethlehem during my visit to Israel in the summer of 2014 was the barrier, looking across to the Church of the Nativity in the far distance as I stood beneath bullet pocked plexiglass windows of Israeli settlements on the hillside.
It was a very sad view, indeed.
A Taste of Home
But the night was not over and it would have an unpredictable ending. I knew St. George’s Anglican Cathedral just outside the gates of the Old City in Jerusalem would be holding midnight mass in English. A couple of seminarians went with me to the service. It was glorious, complete with the smells and bells we Anglicans love. It even featured tea and crumpets afterward in the parish hall. After a trying night, it was a welcome respite of Christmas like we celebrated back home.
When I finally departed the Cathedral gates, I began to look for a cab. None in sight. Indeed, no traffic at all at 2 AM Christmas morning. I waited for 15 minutes and nothing passed by. Jerusalem was shuttered and sleeping.
That left me with a dilemma. My hotel was on the far side of the Old City on the Mount of Olives, a good 3-4 miles away. While I have always like to walk, I was keenly aware that I was alone in the middle of the night in a foreign country with a long history of violence. Worst of all, I was suddenly aware that the only way I could get home was by walking back through the city gates into the walled Old City of Jerusalem and out the far side because it was the only way I knew to get there.
I gulped, summoned up my courage and took off, entering the Damascus Gate. The Old City was dimly lit where lit at all. Whole blocks of its passageways were dark. I was alone, hearing my own footsteps echoing off the paving stones, bouncing off shuttered shops and restaurants.
While I probably was not in any great danger that night, I did not know that. The words of the psalmist echoed in my mind: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...” I was terrified. But, like the psalmist I felt that G_d was indeed with me that night. I made my way to the Via Dolorosa and soon saw the Lion’s Gate ahead. I had made it.
Photo from Times of Israel, Dec. 24, 2015
Emerging from the Lion’s Gate I could see the lights of my destination, the Seven Arches Hotel on the top of the Mount of Olives. Getting there would require weaving up the hillside on a series of two lane roads populated by Arabs offering camel rides and photos with his donkey during the day time. No camels, donkeys or their tenders were in sight as I began the climb to the hotel.
As I walked, my anxieties began to subside. I was safe, had a good story I’d actually survived to tell, and was almost home. That was when the beauty of the night swept over me.
The moon would be full in two more days that Christmas. But in the dry, desert air of Israel, not a cloud obscured the nearly full moon. Everywhere I looked the hillsides were illuminated by white moonlight, bright enough I could see the graves in the nearby Kidron Valley, the church next to the Garden of Gethsemane. Indeed, it was bright enough I could actually read the service booklet from St. George’s I’d brought with me.
Even more striking than the landscape around me bathed in that ocean of white moonlight was how incredibly quiet it was. Jerusalem, with its crushes of tourists, its vendors of everything from falafel to olive wood nativity scenes, its church bells and calls to worship emanating from tinny public address systems in Islamic prayer towers all around the city, can be quite overwhelming.
But not this night. As I looked around me, I suddenly heard the words of the hymn we had just sung to conclude midnight mass at St. Georges:
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright…
Sleep in heavenly peace
Everywhere I looked, it was, indeed, calm. It was bright. The city whose very name means a place of peace indeed slept in a heavenly peace. For one shining moment, the internecine strife that marks daily life in Israel had relaxed its bloody grip. Peace had actually come to the city of peace.
I will long remember that night in Jerusalem. When I close my eyes as we sing Silent Night at the end of our Christmas Eve mass this night, it will be that brilliantly lit valley outside a heavenly peaceful city that I will envision. And I will give thanks to a generous G-d that I was privileged to be there for that beautiful sight.
May the heavenly peace of Christmas be with you, your families and all the living beings in the good Creation this night, folks. Sleep in heavenly peace.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)