Bethlehem is now brimming with optimism The Christ Child irons out the Church’s jagged edges

20 December 2013 Catholic Herald

Bethlehem is in a buoyant mood this Christmas. A mixture of optimism and tradition has raised the spirits of many there, including 50-year-old Dr Vera Baboun, the town’s first female mayor – a Catholic and mother of five. “It’s a miracle. Really a miracle!” she told me. “The repairs to the Church of the Nativity are, at last, taking place.”

Not only are massive new oak beams being inserted into its ancient roof so that rain no longer drips down its walls but the whole church is undergoing its most extensive facelift for 600 years. The banging of hammers and clamour of construction workers have not deterred tourists. Far from it. A longing by Christians to be in the traditional birthplace of Jesus for Christmas means that all of Bethlehem’s 33 hotels are fully booked.

Jill, Duchess of Hamilton Notebook to different birth locations. Neither Luke nor Matthew have the shepherds or the Wise Men at the same place at the same time. Matthew has the Wise Men visiting Jesus in a house after the birth. Luke has the shepherds going to the manger. But time-honoured crèches conflate these two so the shepherds and Wise Men gather together around the manger.

One of the main attractions in the town is the 49foot-high Christmas tree in Manger Square, complete with a crèche. Interestingly, it still contains the usual sheep, shepherds, Wise Men and angels – not forgetting the principals, the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The unholy row last Christmas about crèches not reflecting true Gospel events has not affected its content. Much debate was sparked by Benedict XVI in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. He wrote that angels never sang to the shepherds when Jesus was born and that in “the gospels there is no mention of animals – it’s an invention”. This prompted other biblical scholars to point out further popular misrepresentations.

The contradictions in the confused story of the birth of Jesus do not stop there. Matthew has Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to Egypt. Luke has them returning directly to Nazareth. No such problems with the gospels of Mark and John. Neither has a word about the birth of the Saviour. More to the point, in the New Testament the day, the month or the year when Jesus was born is never mentioned. Christmas for the Orthodox churches is on January 7 and for the Armenian Orthodox on January 19. Many insist that December 25 was introduced in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine because it coincided with a pagan feast, that of the sun god Mithras.

For example, the gospels do not say how many Wise Men there were, only that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. There may have been five, six or a dozen. Who knows? Nor does Matthew say that they were kings, just that they were Magi from the east. And there is the subject of camels. Nowhere does Matthew – the only author who refers to the Wise Men – state that they arrived on camels.

But does it really matter? Surely the firmly established Christmas traditions and imagery can be accepted in a similar way to the dogmas proclaimed by the Church after Jesus’s earthly life ended. Do we care if the shepherds and Wise Men were in Bethlehem together? What matters is that almost all over the world there is a strange magic at Christmas, a mystery that enters the hearts of even the most hardened sceptics – especially in Bethlehem.