Ann George attends a very Anglican service, albeit with surprises in store
How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far….
Actually, not far away at all from Jerusalem – a short ride on the coach, following an official car sporting the Union Jack and carrying not only the British Consul but also the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. When we reached the Checkpoint, where in the usual way you could wait for hours while bored Israeli soldiers scrutinized every single passport, we were waved through at the count of an engine-throb. We were expected; it was Christmas Eve and the Anglican Cathedral congregation had once more been invited to hold their service of Nine Lessons and Carols on the roof of the Greek Orthodox monastery, part of the great Church of the Nativity.
This was the third Christmas I had spent in the Holy Land and so I knew what to expect on reaching Bethlehem. The crowds in Manger Square were tremendous; joyful Christians from all over the world were singing Christmas songs, many bouncing up and down with the excitement of being in that place at that moment. We were herded towards the barriers, and the guards pulled a section aside to allow us to pass through the crowds and go into the basilica by its famously tiny doorway; all who wish to enter, even consuls and bishops, have to bow down to enter this church!
There was a change of plan. It was announced that we would begin our service in the monastery chapel and perhaps go up onto the roof later. We would need to wait ten minutes. There were some disgruntled mutterings…..
When we were allowed into the monastery we found that the chapel was very small indeed. In fact, we were shoulder to shoulder, and I was a bit concerned as I had been asked to read one of the lessons, luckily not the first one so at least I would know where to go. But how would I get there without elbowing people out of the way? The congregation was exhibiting all the signs of traditional British best behaviour when put to unnecessary inconvenience, with irritation seething away but well tamped down.
Suddenly a door opened and the Greek Orthodox bishop was before us. The next figure to enter raised a collective gasp: the well-known, notorious, even, Yasser Arafat, wearing his trademark black-checked Palestinian headscarf. Suddenly a space magically appeared in front of him and his six very large bodyguards. Now we knew why we had been told to wait, and why we were not going up on the roof, and probably why the British Consul had joined us. Yasser Arafat, on a visit to the Bishop, had asked to join this semi-private Carol Service. So Ann George has had the rather debatable privilege of reading the account of the Annunciation to Mary from the space in front of the Palestinian President.
Later, after he had left us, we went up on the roof. The night sky was clear, the stars sparkled in the dark-blue velvet as they would have sparkled some two thousand years ago, and we sang Silent Night. It was beautiful, but it was not the best thing that had happened to me that Christmas Eve.
You see, earlier, while everybody else was behaving sensibly and keeping together in front of the monastery door, I was naughtily breaking the rules, and went to see if, by chance, the door leading to the Grotto was open, and it was! I quietly pushed it, hoping that I might go down the stairs and say a brief prayer at the place where Jesus was born, a place marked by a silver star let into the paving stones. But, instead of the bare stones, there, below me, was a scene that could only have been painted by Caravaggio. There was a Bambino, the image of the Child Jesus, held in unseen hands, lit only by candles held by dark-clad figures, deeply in shadow. I could just see the hand movements of one of them, as he blessed the little statue, destined, perhaps, for a church far away. In those few moments of amazement and wonder I experienced the deep joy and surprise of the Nativity, the tiny infant glowing: the Light of the World.
Can we see the little child?
Is he within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?
Ann George is a member of the Council of Forward in Faith