CHRISTMAS Eve! and Bethlehem bells are ringing. From dawn till dusk that five-mileslong, white ribboned road that winds south from Jerusalem is athrong with an eager multitude— pilgrims of every race and land. They come on foot, on camels, donkeys and horses, by modern bus, and by car, and all press forward to a common goal—a small crypt cave, agleam with silver lamps, where more than nineteen centuries ago the Lord of all the earth was horn.
A visit to the birthplace of Christ is always a memorable experience, and never more enviable than on Christmas Eve, when the greatest event in the world's long history is commemorated in the very place where it was enacted.
Early in the afternoon the Patriarch of Jerusalem leaves the Holy City, and his stately procession takes the road to Bethlehem. His vanguard is a mounted cross-bearer and two lancers of the British Palestinian police: his escorts, a dignified body of clergy, members of the British Government, a n d foreign embassies with their retinues, and streams of gay outriders, pennons flying from their lancebeads.
Bethlehem en fete
Bethlehem is en fête, and Christians the world over are journeying in spirit with the crowds, hastening up the ageold road to the venerable Church of the Nativity, which enshrines the Cave of Bethlehem.
It is only a commonplace road like so many roads in Palestine, but it calls as no other in the whole realms of Christendom. Rough white stone walls flank the ways: behind them stretch sparse pastures, studded with the gracious green of olive trees. Brownskinned shepherds sit beneath their welcome shade, and play their reedy pipes as of old. Sheep and goats still cluster round the rude stone " Magi's Well" where, tradition says, the Wise Men halted, and found again the star which led them to Bethlehem.
The little road runs on—past the Talavera Camp, where all day long the British buglers call, and on through cultivated fields. Soon the ancient monastery of Mar Elias appears on the crest of a hill, and here the traveller, looking back, sees the walled old city of Jerusalem, and ahead of him the first enchanted sight of peaceful Bethlehem.
Royal and Hallowed
No pilgrim in the Holy Land can forget that picture of Christ's birthplace—a pink and white cluster of fiatroofed houses set upon a hill, with graceful bell towers, and cypresses like sentinels lifting their spires in the blue. The Nativity Church is on the southeast of the city, and about it lie terraced vineyards, olive groves all silvery green, and falling away to the horizon, the fields where Ruth gleaned, David tended his father's flocks, and humble shepherds one deathless night heard the fleet great Gloria.
The last lap of the journey leads down the Mar Elias ridge, past the whitedomed shrine of Rachel's tomb, and then up the tiny hill, which climbs into the City of David, royal hallowed Bethlehem.
To walk in the ancient town at any other than the festive season is like a step back into the centuries. The atmosphere of Bethlehem is quiet and gracious: the hustle and fever of modern life have no place here. Among the clean, white, clustering houses, tiny roughly-paved streets, all too narrow for wheeled traffic, run up hill and down. Alleys there are so peaceful one ]sears little save the soft music of camel bells, or the clip-clopping of donkeys' hoofs. Swarthy fellaheen In flowing caftans and soft yellow sandals pass noiselessly by: Bethlehem maidens sit by open doorways, embroidering muslin or knitting medallions of snow-white lace.
Sound of Steady Industry
From the dark little open-fronted shops that line the main street there comes the sound of steady industry. Carpenters are busy with their planes; cobblers stitch and punch morocco shoes; craftsmen sit cross-legged among their wares, fashioning trinkets of olive wood; and from some oriel window above one may glimpse a grave-faced Madonna in blue cloak and high peaked veil, the surviving head-dress of Crusading fashions in medieval days.
But Bethlehem's shops are shuttered on Christmas Eve. Despite the muezzin its 9,000 citizens are a Christian community, and to-day they have lined the streets, filled the flat roofs and white balconies, in readiness to greet the patriarchal procession. The open courtyard before the Nativity Church is a waving sea of dark faces and red tarboodbes. Bands are playing, and campanile bells ringing out across the world the gladdest tidings that ever came to the sons of men.
When the watcher from the highest point signals that the procession is approaching, the crowds make way, and to the sound of music and the rhythmic clapping of the populace, the Patriarch and his entourage pass into the grim, fortress-like building of the Church of the Nativity. Its frowning grey walls enclose and guard that hallowed cave, which Christians since the second century have venerated as the birthplace of Christ. Long, long ago the great west door was walled up against the desecrating heathen, and the remaining portal is so low one must stoop to enter.
Where Angels Sang
Behind the dim vestibule is St. Helena's Roman basilica, built A.n. 330, the oldest Christian church in use to-day. Four rows of dull red Corinthian pillars divide it into nave and aisles; part of the original pavement like old tapestry from some eastern loom is still visible, and on the ancient walls dim mosaics of Byzantine gold are faintly gleaming.
Within the basilica priests move in solemn celebrations. Vespers and the Christian Office are sung, and as darkness steals gently over the white town the massed choir outside the church sings " Venite Adoremus," and in English and many an alien tongue carol singers hymn the ancient canticles under the very stars where once the angels sang. Hours before midnight Mass the church is filled to overflowing. Thousands of flickering candles and coloured lamps shed their lambent gleams upon the strangest company.
Here are black-bearded Greek priests like Assyrian kings; sons of St. Francis in chaste brown habits; mitred bishops in purple and lace, and the Patriarch in cardinal and ermine. There are ragged fellaheen with furrowed faces and toil-worn hands; Christian Arabs in robes of the desert; foreign consuls and civilian officers, members of the Air Force and Army nurses, women of Bethlehem in flowing veils, and British policemen and British " Tommies" from Jerusalem's citadel. East and West meet before the Cave of Bethlehem.
The Cave-14yds. x 4yds.
A marble shrine with gates of finest bronze encloses that sacred Grotto. A dark little slippery staircase, worn by the feet of unnumbered pilgrims, leads down to it. At the foot of the steps, impassive and motionless, stands an armed Moslem Guard. The Cave is only a small chamber, fourteen yards by four. Its walls are rough, blackened with age, and draped, as is the manner of the East, with gold, silver and costly tapestries. The glow of fifty-three silver lamps illuminates the sanctuary, and sheds a soft and mysterious glow on the silver star in the pavement, and the simple Latin inscription around it, " Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary."
The short ceremony at the Grotto marks the climax of the midnight celebrations. Bearing in his arms a waxen bambino, the Patriarch with his attendants descends to the crypt. The Gospel story of the Nativity is sung in the place where it began, and at the words, " She wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger," the figure is laid in the hollow of the rock where once His Manger stood. With the Patriarch's departure from • the Cave there begins and continues for hours a steady stream of worshippers who file down the staircase in turn, and pass reverently and silently before the sacred place.
Gold, Silver and Jewels
Within I he crowded basilica, surrounded by all the solemnity and pageantry of the Christmas celebrations, it is easy to forget the simplicity of the story of Bethlehem. One wishes that the humble Cave had been left in its primitive state, but devout Christians of all ages have laid down here their tributes—gold, silver and jewels—the costliest gifts of men. It could hardly be otherwise, but to come silently out from the Grotto and see Bethlehem bathed in moonlight is to see the Nativity setting again.
The low-hung velvet sky is pricked with stars: the moon slides out from cloud wisps, white as a swan's wing. and sheds over the slumbering homesteads, and the shepherds' fields, a soft and mystic light. Sounds ring out crystal-clear, a dog barks in the village, and from somewhere along the winding road comes the tinkle of bells, as a train of camels with its mysterious burden disappears into the night. Soon all is still again: how easy to believe that in the hush of such a night as this the Saviour was born—that wonderstricken shepherds heard music and song, and that immortal message of " Peace on earth to men of goodwill."