The first full day of a retreat can feel like a lifetime. So much happens to enliven the senses and spirit and banish the everyday. As the Palestinian National Authority prepares to convene a summit meeting beginning on Tuesday in Bethlehem, the light of Christ shone like a light bulb going off in Canon Iyad's head. With 4,000 PNA soldiers gathering to protect their fractious politicians (as of today, Hamas said it wouldn't permit Fatah members from Gaza to attend), he said we should probably visit Bethlehem today instead of tomorrow. How wise he was, as always. The place was already crawling with soldiers. Tomorrow we might actually have been turned away.
The afternoon light shone in the window of St. Jerome's chapel in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where tradition holds that the great scholar produced the indispensable Latin Bible known as the Vulgate. As a group of Spanish pilgrims sang "Adeste Fideles" during mass in the Franciscan church upstairs, we sang "O Come All Ye Faithful" downstairs. When seven of us took a late-evening walk through darkened maze of the Old City, the fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juice we enjoyed seemed to be sunlight itself. I even saw a twinkle in the eye of the young Israeli soldier who came onto our bus at a checkpoint to inspect our passports. Her semiautomatic rifle, half as long as she was tall, banged against our shoulders as she walked down the aisle. She smiled sweetly as she asked how we had enjoyed Bethlehem.
And yet her qualities would have been lost on those West Bank Palestinians whose lives are disrupted by Israeli security measures. Iyad said he used to take groups to Bethlehem just to get ice cream after lunch. Nowadays the eight-mile round trip can take half a day. Palestinian Catholic priests have to show movies about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher because their Arab students find it to hard to visit it in person. So many lovely, gracious people here. So much light and hope. So much faith. So much work to do.
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