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Perspective: Bethlehem is a city that bears witness to the miracle of human life

Amid the flurry of Christmas, it’s easy to lose sight of the message that life is a miracle. But the architecture of my apartment in Bethlehem connected me to the bigger history — and magic — embedded in the place

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Fireworks burst over the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square in the West Bank town of Bethlehem during the lighting of the Christmas tree, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.

Maya Alleruzzo, Associated Press

There’s no denying that Christmas in Bethlehem is lovely. There’s the tree lighting on Manger Square. The fireworks and craft market. The Palestinian Scouts’ parade on Star Street and the twinkling decorations that cast the thoroughfare in a golden light, rendering it warm and magical.

When I lived in Bethlehem, I delighted in experiencing these festivities with my Palestinian and international friends. And, in the spirit of the season, my now-husband and I hosted a Christmas party of our own for Muslim, Christian and Jewish friends. But I found myself so wrapped up in the trappings of the holiday — and so busy trying to make merry — that I forgot what the season is about: faith and miracles. 

Fortunately, the place — and the people who live there — exists year round. And it was in the quieter moments of everyday life in Bethlehem that I found a thread to the past.

As the bird flies, my apartment in Bethlehem — the bottom floor of a three-story stone mansion that looked out onto terraces lined with olive groves — was about half a kilometer from the Church of Nativity. And it was even closer to the Milk Grotto church, where it is believed that Mary nursed the baby Jesus.

My landlady, a Palestinian Christian, a refugee from Jaffa whose brother had bought the home from a Bethlehem family just a few decades before, dated the house’s construction back to the early 1800s. But a friend of mine, a local historian who taught at a nearby university, gave me a different story. 

During a Christmas party that my now-husband and I hosted in the winter of 2013, my academic friend grabbed my hand to explain. She led me to the darkest, coolest recess of my apartment, a small space where there were no windows and no light.  

“Where are we?” she asked. 

“In the pantry.”  

“No, not a pantry. Guess again.”

Facing the cabinet that held my tea and spices, my fridge on the wall behind me, I looked around. To my left was the bathroom with a small window that I couldn’t reach, a square cut high up in the adjacent wall. To my right was the in-ground well — it was topped with a heavy chunk of limestone, tucked into a recess and hidden behind a curtain — and the stairs that led up to my landlady’s half of the house.

Beyond the well was my kitchen, also windowless. And beyond the kitchen was my guest bedroom, which, in another adjacent wall, had another odd window — also small, also high up. That window was street level and, through it, I could see people walking and driving by. 

All the clues were there but I didn’t get it. I shook my head. 

“This pantry,” my friend announced, “was originally a cave.” Running her hand along the smooth, cool wall next to the cabinet, she added, “That’s mountain on the other side.” 

Now the fact that the entire back wall of my apartment had no windows made sense. Now I understood why my apartment was invisible from the road, why the bottom floor revealed itself only when you rounded the sharp corner that hugged the house. My apartment, I now understood, was nestled in the side of a mountain, offering me an unfettered view of the valley below and hills beyond.

My friend explained: Centuries ago, locals had taken up residence in the cave, one of the many scattered through the Judean Hills and neighboring desert. They liked the spot. They stayed. Eventually, someone turned the cave into a tiny one-room structure — a multipurpose room — as many area families did in the past and some still do today.

She led me out of the pantry, to the center of my living room, large and airy, capped by a soaring, vaulted ceiling. She pointed to my bedroom and the guest room, directly across from each other, the French doors of which opened onto the living room. 

Those rooms had both been one-room houses, too, she said, probably built by brothers because people lived in family compounds, as they still do today. 

She pointed up. “This ceiling wasn’t here. This was open,” she said. As she said that, I imagined the walls between me and the garden dropping away. 

And then she pointed towards the well. “They put the well in the courtyard, between the houses, so they could all use it.” 

Later, a couple of hundred years ago, they’d closed the whole thing in. The second and third stories — my landlady’s place and the stairs that led to it — had come later. As had the hand-painted floor tiles. 

Little by little, layer by layer, the house I saw now had taken hold. And now that I understood how it all came to be, I could mentally dismantle the place, piece by piece, and imagine the people who came before me. I saw the brothers and their families, their children playing together in the courtyard, the women drawing water from the well.

I went further back in time and saw the original inhabitants, sitting in their cave, which faced out in the same direction as my landlady’s garden and the benches in it. I imagined them taking in a view not so different from my own.

I imagined them living lives that were, on the one hand, very different from mine but that were punctuated with the same feelings. I imagined their hearts full of joy and fear and love and anger and sorrow and excitement. I imagined their limbs, arms and legs and feet and hands not at all different from mine. And I saw them fade, replaced by the generations that followed. 

After that conversation, I often found myself drawn to the cool, dark, quiet of the pantry. Sometimes I sat there, on the tiled floor, between the fridge and the cabinet that held my teas and spices, when I needed to feel grounded. It was a place where I could go when the details of my life felt overwhelming, when I needed the perspective that comes from considering the centuries and people that came before me — and the centuries and people who will come after. 

While sitting in the pantry, I sometimes thought about the scholarly argument that Jesus had been born in a cave. I wondered if it was this one. Or if it was here that he’d been nursed.

With the Church of Nativity and the Milk Grotto both almost a half a kilometer away, I realized it was unlikely. But just considering it helped me imagine the many births and deaths and births and deaths that had taken place in these hills for thousands of years. On the screen of my mind people rose, fell, and were replaced.

I realized that — for me, at least — Bethlehem isn’t just about the miracle of Jesus’s birth, it’s about the miracle of all the people who have lived here. It’s about the miracle of human life and of all the lives to come. 

It’s about the miracle — and sanctity — of both the past as well as this moment in time, a sentiment captured in the Jewish prayer, the shehecheyanu, during which we thank God for bringing us to this occasion.

Just as God brought the world to the occasion of Jesus’s birth, so does he bring us all moments — big and small, divine and mundane. That’s the other lesson I learned in Bethlehem: it’s all a gift. Every breath. Even the final one, the one that extinguishes the flame, that plunges us into darkness, that makes way for the new flame to come.