Christmas thoughts about Bethlehem, and the icon of Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls

I guess it is natural that as Christmas approaches my mind wanders to Bethlehem; not the Bethlehem of the past but the Bethlehem as it is today, the place where I have spent emotionally and literally the best part of the last seven years.

"I behold a strange and wonderful mystery, heaven is the Cave, the Virgin is the Cherubim Throne, the Manger the place where Christ lay, the God whom nothing can contain." Christmas Canon of the Nativity, Ode 9.

Bethlehem is the place of the Cave, the incomprehensible place that deep within the dark earth the limitless, unbounded, undelineated, uncircumscribed Creator emerged from the womb of a virgin as one of us, totally like us, with a face like ours that we could see, touch, feel, in a tiny, changing, growing, needy body like ours that could be wrapped in cloths and placed in a cattle trough. It is the place where the universe turned upside down and inside out, and the human mind was blown away in finding itself comprehending the incomprehensible in an incomprehensible way!

During my last trip from late September to late November I attended Mass in that Cave almost every Sunday. While the Orthodox celebration is always jammed packed with locals, the Catholic Mass is sparsely attended, mostly by nuns and non-natives. The charm of this is that you get to pray in a very recollected way, apart from the Palestinian policemen trying to keep out the hordes of Russians while the Mass is taking place. Most pilgrims get only a glimpse of the place as the are hoarded through in the group load, getting just a few seconds to kneel by the star beneath the Orthodox altar where the Lord was born, and the obligatory photograph. Few manage to pray at the adjacent Catholic altar at the manger, let alone to spend a little time contemplating the enormity of what took place there. So, I have to count the immense privilege of being able to pray in the Cave as one of the most significant blessings of this period of my life.

But nothing comes without a cost. The nativity Cave is just one of a complex of ancient caves that form a warren beneath the hill top of Bethlehem. Somewhere beneath the Greek Orthodox monastery there are caves in which multiple graves of children have been found. The savage butchery of Herod has been matched countless times even in my lifetime, be that the gulags of the Soviet Union, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, the disappearances of the Argentinian juntas, or the ethnic cleansing of Rwanda or of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The list goes on. Such barbarity is an intrinsic part of humanity as it is, even if not as it wishes to be, and those who want to airbrush the massacre of the Holy Innocents from the Nativity story (when was that ever in the nativity play?) do so at their peril. To understand the enormity and seriousness of the Incarnation demands that we see it in its full context, and not the sentimental, Disney version of talking animals and jolly Santas.

The massacre of those innocent children underlined why God needed to come and be one of us. Humanity without grace, without the Presence of God active in our world, is one unable to break out of its cycle of barbarity. Even with grace life is a massive struggle, but without grace it is simply a desperate struggle to survive. The propensity of humanity to sink to its lowest level, even at moments of its greatest genius, is written on every page of history. Einstein and his collaboration, later greatly lamented, in the development of the atom bomb, Napoleon who could bring Europe to a new legal order yet be seduced by his own vanity and hubris, the Ottoman emperors capable of works of incredible magnificence and artistic beauty who were also sadists, the commandant of Auschwitz and his love of great classical music, the flawed genius of a Francis Bacon or an Eric Gill. At every level of human ability comes both achievements and terrible flaws. Alone, humanity can only scrabble to survive its own tendency to implode to savagery and the most terrible vices.

Yet few people even within the Church seem to believe we really need saving, or that we need a Saviour to help us out of the massive hole we find ourselves in. The Church of every denomination has senior clerics who just can't avoid wagging the finger at those outside the Church and saying, in effect, pull your socks up and live to the standards we believe are best for you and everyone else. Marriage and divorce is a good example. The Church proclaims a beautiful truth in the love of a man for a woman, a formulation of a new entire human entity shaped in the most profound inter-personal connection and in which new human life is conceived and raised. Absolutely beautiful, whatever the cynicism of the gay lobby might throw at it. Yet that exclusivity as a really life enhancing force of good is only possible as a work of grace, that is as a gift from God's own power. Without grace working in human souls and in the communities they form, then the basic urges to procreate and to have fun and be intimate will take over.

The alternative to a grace filled order is given us in Islam: a rigid law code, with clear rules and dire punishments. So, for example, adultery is punishable with death, while at the same time divorce is accepted as inevitable (like Moses did and which Jesus explains was because of the hardness of people's hearts). It also simply gives in expecting a man's basic urges to be fulfilled with one wife, especially if there are no children conceived, and concedes that the man should be allowed two or three wives, so long as he can provide for all of them in a just and fair way. This abandons the goal of monogamy and replaces it with a series measures to more or less cope with the waywardness of the human person.

After so many centuries where a majority of Christian countries  were infused with grace at baptism, and more often than not through the sacraments of the Eucharist, penance, marriage, while the earth was hallowed with blessed holy water as was everything from a door to a horse and cart, we have forgotten just how absolutely essential this sacralising of the cosmos is. Without it human beings languish in a state of brokenness which defies earthly remedies of healing. And now as people become more and more remote from the grace filled springs of the Church's supernatural life whole cultures are sliding back into a more base, less exalted level.

The success of the Christian mission in the early centuries was, I guess, because people knew just how frightening life was, and could tangibly see the difference which Christian's manifested in the way they lived their lives. They were happier, more loving, more at peace, less afraid, and aspired to a level of human life largely known in the exceptional examples which occasionally sprang up. Grace, building on nature, simply enables us to become more noble, more complete, less afraid, more at peace with ourselves and one another.

This is a reality far from the country I now know as my own. The descent into hedonistic self-destruction is on display every weekend in the casualty departments of every hospital. Young people relentlessly drinking till they pass out, taking all sorts of substance cocktails chasing 'a good time', which you could re-define as only good because you can't remember it. Crass 'reality shows' examine ,with fetishistic relish ,the exploits of hordes of youthful holiday makes in Benidorm and the like, filming their parents incredulous despair with a perverse enjoyment. The damage to people's health is indisputable with the UK having the highest rate of STDs in Europe, and a study by the Royal College of Physicians revealed that the NHS was spending £3billion a year on  drink-related health problems,12% of total NHS spending on hospitals. 

Nor is this simply about chasing pleasure in an extreme form, it is about compulsion in many aspects of life which does us harm. For example people take out Wonga loans and the like, not to feed their families but to continue to indulge their craving for the 'little luxuries' which they feel brings them meaning. I remember some years ago, when I worked on a massive housing estate called Easterhouse in Glasgow, hearing of a mother who had sold all the living room furniture to buy a games console for her two boys...who spent Christmas day sat on tea chests playing with it. Or take another young mother from the same desperately deprived estate - she had got into £150 of debt through the catalogue. After 2 years I think she had, with the help of the parish nuns, managed to wipe out the debt. They were so happy for her the nuns had a little party for her and her two year old daughter. Yet a week later she had spent the same amount on an outfit for the toddler that would be too small within a matter of weeks. When asked why, these mothers would simply say, I couldn't help it, I just wanted my kids to have 'the best'. Its was crazy, they knew it, but they feel helpless to resist the compulsion to buy.

Of course those urges and sad tales of human self-destruction were there when I was younger, but society seemed better able to help people resist the compulsions and the problems while significant were somehow not quite epidemic. Now it is all about mopping up the problem, rather than resisting it, as though there is no hope for people to control their actions, be it indulging in alcohol, drugs, sex or debt. Please don't misunderstand me, I am not pointing the finger at anyone, and I am not saying that pleasure is somehow evil, or the means by which we have pleasure - sex, food etc - is in itself bad, I am talking here about when enjoyment becomes a compulsion, a force which takes over and shapes our lives and over which we have less and less control. The problem with pleasure is that it often masks a dragon. 

Chasing the dragon is the phrase given to the compulsion to take drugs, in particular heroin and opium, in the pursuit of the ultimate, and always elusive, high. In the Book of Revelation the dragon is a beast that seeks to chase and destroy the woman clothed with the sun, the woman pregnant with Christ. Its hatred for the woman and her Child consumes it, and insatiable. These forces which seek to control and compel us, to imprison us. Pope Benedict said to the bishops of the Middle East that there were currently four 'spiritual powers' waging war on the Christian community: violence in the name of God, attacks on the integrity of family relationships, drugs and greed in the world's markets. These are all manifestations of those forces which seem to grasp, choke and compel so many of us into self-destructive behaviours. It is these forces which are dragging the Christian community into the abyss.

The Icon of Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls... notice the dragon chasing her...
In Bethlehem today you see these forces draining the life out of the city in general and its Christian community in particular. For example, one of the pressing scandals is the greed which drives those in the tourism industry, which has Christians building mansions costing literally many millions of dollars out of high profit margins driven at the expense of a living wage for those who make the items they sell, many of them their brother Christians, and all their fellow human beings. The clergy are coerced to compromise with this, so never a word is said from the pulpit about this scandal, and various clergy are wined, dined and patronised by these significant families. And Manger Sq, the piazza in front of the Church of the Nativity is well known as the place where you will find drugs on offer, though, thank God, not hard drugs. 

I wrote an icon based on this prophetic insight of Pope Benedict on the Israeli separation wall, that literally cuts the Christians of Bethlehem off from all the Christian holy places in Jerusalem. It is a sad tragedy that Christians descended from the earliest Christians can no longer go to the places of the redemption in Jerusalem, a position imposed on them in the name of the preservation of a Jewish state and its security, a violation,  in the name of one religion, of the right of another to freedom of worship. The wall embodies those very forces which claw at the Christian faith across the world, in its homeland, and so I wanted to paint an icon on that wall that would be a counter-force to those forces of evil which have sought from the moment of Christ's birth to destroy his Body. This is the image of Mary who brings down walls.

This image is a manifestation of that truth of the Incarnation which the opening Ode of Christmas celebrated. It is the truth that these powers - which would exalt and laud it over others, suppressing their human rights and frustrating their flourishing as human beings - are not invincible, and that through the fragile humility of a truly immaculate woman the even greater humility of God become Man they are vanquished, cast out, turned over, and the darkness filled with light. The cave is a place of darkness and shadow, a place where David and Elijah fled in fear of their lives and when they knew their brokenness and failure. The icon of the harrowing of hell also has a cave, it is the place where Satan lies bound in chains, and the doors that once enclosed it lay shattered. This is where Christ comes, because it is the place where our chains bind us, where the powers and principalities, as St Paul puts it, choke us and crush the very life out of us, where we are paralysed by fear. So, when Christ is born it is into this reality of a world without grace, a world ravaged by these powers that sow fear and reap death. 

When we glimpse this, then the real splendour and joy of Christmas makes sense. In contrast, our secularised world has reduced it to an orgy of consumption, with the Disney fantasy version of twinkling stars, talking animals and ho ho ing santas. It was OK when the Christian reality behind it was still clearly in sight, but now that has been lost it is something really nauseating and pagan, but without all the jolly pagan stuff like the yule log. Just occasionally you get glimpses of what is rapidly being lost, for example a lovely medley of traditional carols I heard today in the car on Classic FM. The words... oh the words... just sublime in meaning it makes you weep. 

1. Of the Father's love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.

2. Oh, that birth forever blessed
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bare the Savior of our race,
And the Babe, the world's Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face
Evermore and evermore.

3. O ye heights of heaven, adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him
And extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert ring
Evermore and evermore.

4. This is He whom Heaven-taught singers
Sang of old with one accord;
Whom the Scriptures of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word.
Now He shines, the Long-expected;
Let creation praise its Lord
Evermore and evermore.

5. Christ, to Thee, with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unending praises be,
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory
Evermore and evermore.

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