Getting to the place where Jesus was born wasn’t nearly as easy for us as it was for the shepherds so long ago.
First there was the small matter of the “smart fence”, which is in fact a solid concrete wall about 10 metres high, built by the Israelis to keep out citizens of the Palestinian territories. Neither our driver nor our guide were allowed to go through the wall and so the only way for us to visit Bethlehem was to be driven to the wall and sent off, on a wing and a prayer, to walk through the checkpoint.
Our Palestinian guide, Walid, met us on the other side with a new driver and bus and took us to have lunch here. Walid was a jolly fellow, fond of a joke, and quite knowledgeable too. He told us at the start that Bethlehem was his home town and he knew everyone – which was to come in very handy when, after visiting the Shepherds’ Field and a local handcraft shop, we came at last to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.
The crowds here were extraordinary and the queue inside to go down beneath the church, to the chapel where (it is believed) the stable was, snaked up and down the church and was so long that if we had politely joined the end we would never have reached the top by closing time.
But Walid had a cunning plan. He parked us all in a corner of St Catherine’s Church next door and disappeared, reappearing in a few minutes to explain conspiratorially that the guards were his cousins, and would turn a blind eye to small groups actually entering through the exit. He then proceeded to take us off in groups of 6. Once my group of 6 was inside the Church of the Nativity, we huddled together opposite the steps coming up from the birthplace chapel while Walid stood across from us behind a pillar right at the top of the steps. In two’s he beckoned us over, then when there was a break in the crowds emerging from the grotto, at his whispered signal “Go!” we had to make a run for the stairs and go down against the tide. When my turn came, I heard shouts behind me but in true ‘resistance movement’ style I kept my head down and ran, not looking back!
This was how that little stable where Jesus was born, on a cold wintry night in a humble outpost of the Roman Empire, looked today. Pretty awful, isn’t it? And this is what they’ve come to see - - the manger where Jesus was laid (not even looking remotely manger-like, to my mind) and the actual spot where he was born.