Sunday, December 16, 2012

Holy Land (1 of ___): Church of the Nativity ... with tangents on Mark Twain and a Reformation-era Christmas carol

We do not think, in the holy places; we think in bed, afterwards, when the glare, and the noise, and the confusion are gone, and in fancy we resisit along, the solemn monuments of the past, and summon the phantom pageants of an age that has passed away. -- Mark Twain, "Innocents Abroad" (393).
Last month when I was in Bethlehem, I decided I'd break out in uncontrollable laughter the next time I heard the Christmas carol "O little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie." Well, we sang it today in church. I was able to maintain decorum, other than a broad smile and some furtive whispering back in the choir loft. But it wasn't easy.

So, you're asking, what was so funny?

Well, this: Twenty-first-century Bethlehem is a bustling Arab city of 25,000, part of a metro area that also includes Shepherds Field or Beit Sahour (population 12,000) and the Dheisheh refugee camp (population estimated at 13,000). When I was there, Bethlehem didn't strike me as lying very still, and its "deep and dreamless sleep" was punctuated before dawn by the day's first Muslim call to prayer, followed by the nearly incessant crowing of roosters outside our hotel window until it was fully light.

"O little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie"

Now I did have Christmas carols running through my head. That omes with the territory when you're in Bethlehem, especially if you write articles about hymnody and folk music. But "O Little Town of Bethlehem" wasn't one of them (even though I do like Ralph Vaughan Williams' melody FOREST GREEN that the Brits sing the text to). The song that's been running through my head instead is an old northern European carol Et barn er født i betlehem (a child is born in Bethlehem). The song is very old, with a Latin version going back to the earliest days of the Reformation in Germany. In 1820 Nicolai F.S. Grundtvig translated it into Danish, and his translation is the basis for versions in all the Scandinavian languages:

Et barn er født i Betlehem
Ti gleder seg, Jerusalem.
Alleluja, alleluja!
An English paraphrase, quite loosely translated but true to the overall sense of Grundtvig's Danish, is available on Douglas D. Anderson's Hymns and Carols of Christmas website:
1. A Child is Born in Bethlehem,
in Bethlehem;
And gladness fills Jerusalem,
Allelujah! Allelujah!

2. A lowly manger shelters Him,
This Holy Boy.
God's angels sing above with joy.
Allelujah! Allelujah!

3. We now give thanks eternally,
To God, the Holy Trinity,
Allelujah! Allelujah!

In 1993 the noted Norwegian singer Sondre Bratland included Et barn er født i betlehem on his CD Rosa fra Betlehem, recorded in the Church of the Nativity. His vocal was backed by Knut Reiersrud on synthesizer, Iver Kleive on guitar, Paolo Vinaccia on hand drums and Palestinian artist Suheil Khoury on flute. The Palestinian Boys' Choir (Palestinisk barnekor) of Ramallah sang the chorus.

But what makes the CD special is the church. Its acoustics were magnificant. Visitors have mixed feelings about the church itself. least according to the reactions posted by vistors. ""This is a tough one to rate," begins one of the reviews on the website.

High altar with Orthodox iconostasis

The review, by JoeOB of Denver, gave it a rating of 3 oout of 5 possible. "I'd like to tell you about the great religious experience you will have but I have to tell you it's very tough to have those moments here because of the sheer mass of people moving thru," he said. "As a tourist the beauty of the church and the special chance to see the birthplace of Christ is memorable, however ..." The mass of pushing, shoving people also irritated 2007sweet16, of Orlando, who said, "I had barely one second to press my camera button to take a picture before I was summoned to "MOVE IT and to GET OUT LADY."

Most reviews mentioned the crowds. But they also mentioned what many saw as the grandeur of the place. Mark G, of Chalfont, Pa., gave it top rating (5 of 5). "Bethlehem is very poor but as you approach the Church of the Nativity you begin to feel that you're in a special place<' he said. [T]his is a very old church and not like any church you'll see as you tour European cathedrals, this is much smaller and to imagine all that has happened on this spot is mind boggling! ...

Basilica (note opening over 4th-century mosaic at left)

More than a hundred years ago Mark Twain, in "Innocents Abroad," had the same mixed reaction: "I touch, with reverent finger, the actual spot where the infant Jesus lay, but I think - nothing." He explained:

You cannot think in this place any more than you can in any other in Palestine that would be likely to inspire reflection. Beggars, cripples and monks compass you about, and make you think only of backsheesh when you would rather think of something more in keeping with the character of the spot. (392)
"Baksheesh," according to Wikipedia, is an act of charitable giving, a tip, a bribe or a combination of the three. It was much more prevalent in 1867, when Mark Twain visited the area. A few of the 21st-century tourists who posted to the Trip Advisor mentioned free-lance guides who worked for tips, but more spoke of how pleasant and knowledgeable their Palestinian tour guides were said.

Even visitors like luvs2travel_0107 of Nashville, who complained of "rude and pushy" crowds at the Church of the Nativity, added, "It is total chaos. But having said that, it is a special place. So i guess trying to put any kind of restrictions on it, would be hard."

The Church of the Nativity dates from 326 CE, and Orthodox, Armenian and Latin Catholic clergy have been have been adding devotional art ever since. It was crowded and noisy when we were there in November, and some of the art – a lot of it – seemed kitschy to our eyes, a kaleidoscope of different styles and periods.

We stood in line, five or six deep, for a good hour in the outer basilica. But it wasn't like standing in line anywhere else I've ever had that dubious privilege. The curent building was first erected in the sixth century, and has been added to or refurbished several times since then. Visible through a hole in the floor is a mosaic (see picture at left above) that belonged to the original shrine erected in the 300s by St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

In Illinois, we get excited when archeologists turn up a teacup dating from the 1830s. In the basilica of the Nativity, there were pillars, paintings and mosiacs still in use that date to the Middle Ages and the late Roman Empire. (I learned later there's even a mosaic showing St. Olav of Norway, although I didn't see it.) The sense of history in Bethlehem was palpable.

In front of us was a group of Russian or Ukranian pilgrims. At least they spoke what sounded like a Slavic language, and they kept pushing and shoving like they were elbowing onto a Moscow city bus. At the same time, you could sense in their faces they were pilgrims, not tourists, as they bought devotional candles in an alcove off the high altar (see picture at right) and prayed in the grotto beneath the high altar that marks the traditional site, marked by a silver star in the marble floor, of the manger and of Christ's birth.

Like so many of the major holy sites, the whole experience left some of our group grumbling about money-changers in the temple and feeling disappointed.

But …

But, in a word, it was magnificent. And you had a sense of the mystery of incarnation, of the divine and the temporal, the eternal and grubby day-to-day reality - of the "holy boy" sheltered in a "lowly manger" down in the grotto while "God's angels sing above with joy" that Grundtvig sang of - and a sense it's been going on for 1,500 years in that same building.

A footnote (or two). Quotations from "Innocents Abroad" are from Chapter 55 of the Wordsworth Classics edition, edited by Stuart Hutchinson (London, 2010). The song is very old, with a Latin version going back to ___th-century Germany. It is very popular in Scandinavia, and is sung to different melodies. In addition to the tune Sondre Bratland followed, by 19th-century hymnist and folk song collector Ludvig Lindeman, you commonly hear:

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