A Journey To Bethlehem

Because I’m busy lazy today, I decided to repost my December 24th post from last year.


On this day before Christmas, I thought I’d share Mark Twain’s report of his visit to Bethlehem. He and a group of other innocents visited Bethlehem on (or about) September 27, 1867. Without more work than this post requires, I can’t fully resolve a small problem of chronology. A day or two just doesn’t matter. Twain’s fullest account of the visit is found in chapter 55 of The Innocents Abroad (1869).

At nine or ten in the morning we reached the Plain of the Shepherds, and stood in a walled garden of olives where the shepherds were watching their flocks by night, eighteen centuries ago, when the multitude of angels brought them the tidings that the Saviour was born. A quarter of a mile away was Bethlehem of Judea, and the pilgrims took some of the stone wall and hurried on.
The Plain of the Shepherds is a desert, paved with loose stones, void of vegetation, glaring in the fierce sun. Only the music of the angels it knew once could charm its shrubs and flowers to life again and restore its vanished beauty. No less potent enchantment could avail to work this miracle.
In the huge Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, built fifteen hundred years ago by the inveterate St. Helena, they took us below ground, and into a grotto cut in the living rock. This was the “manger” where Christ was born. A silver star set in the floor bears a Latin inscription to that effect. It is polished with the kisses of many generations of worshiping pilgrims. The grotto was tricked out in the usual tasteless style observable in all the holy places of Palestine. As in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, envy and uncharitableness were apparent here. The priests and the members of the Greek and Latin churches can not come by the same corridor to kneel in the sacred birthplace of the Redeemer, but are compelled to approach and retire by different avenues, lest they quarrel and fight on this holiest ground on earth.
I have no “meditations,” suggested by this spot where the very first “Merry Christmas!” was uttered in all the world, and from whence the friend of my childhood, Santa Claus, departed on his first journey, to gladden and continue to gladden roaring firesides on wintry mornings in many a distant land forever and forever. I touch, with reverent finger, the actual spot where the infant Jesus lay, but I think–nothing.
You can not think in this place any more than you can in any other in Palestine that would be likely to inspire reflection. Beggars, cripples and monks compass you about, and make you think only of bucksheesh when you would rather think of something more in keeping with the character of the spot.
I was glad to get away, and glad when we had walked through the grottoes where Eusebius wrote, and Jerome fasted, and Joseph prepared for the flight into Egypt, and the dozen other distinguished grottoes, and knew we were done. The Church of the Nativity is almost as well packed with exceeding holy places as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself. They even have in it a grotto wherein twenty thousand children were slaughtered by Herod when he was seeking the life of the infant Saviour.
We went to the Milk Grotto, of course–a cavern where Mary hid herself for a while before the flight into Egypt. Its walls were black before she entered, but in suckling the Child, a drop of her milk fell upon the floor and instantly changed the darkness of the walls to its own snowy hue. We took many little fragments of stone from here, because it is well known in all the East that a barren woman hath need only to touch her lips to one of these and her failing will depart from her. We took many specimens, to the end that we might confer happiness upon certain households that we wot of.
We got away from Bethlehem and its troops of beggars and relic-peddlers in the afternoon, and after spending some little time at Rachel’s tomb, hurried to Jerusalem as fast as possible. I never was so glad to get home again before. I never have enjoyed rest as I have enjoyed it during these last few hours. The journey to the Dead Sea, the Jordan and Bethlehem was short, but it was an exhausting one. Such roasting heat, such oppressive solitude, and such dismal desolation can not surely exist elsewhere on earth. And such fatigue!

One of Mark Twain’s fellow innocents was Mary Mason Fairbanks. Twain wrote her on Christmas Eve of the next year. He dated his letter 24 December 1868 but it was not complete until very early Christmas morning. Here is part of what he had to say.

About this time (past midnight, & so, Christmas is here), eighteen hundred & sixty nine years ago, the stars were shedding a purer lustre above the barren hills of Bethlehem—& possibly flowers were being charmed to life in the dismal plain where the Shepherds watched their flocks—& hovering angels were singing Peace on earth, goodwill to men. For the Savior was come. Don’t you naturally turn, in fancy, now, to that crumbling wall & its venerable olives, & to the mouldy domes & turrets of Bethlehem? And don’t you picture it all out in your mind as we saw it many months ago? And don’t the picture mellow in the distance & take to itself again the soft, unreal semblance that Poetry & Tradition give to the things they hallow? And now that the greasy monks, & the noisy mob, & the leprous beggars are gone, & all the harsh, cold hardness of real stone & unsentimental glare of sunlight are banished from the vision, don’t you realize again, as in other years, that Jesus was born there, & that the angels did sing in the still air above, & that the wondering Shepherds did hold their breath & listen as the mysterious music floated by? I do. It is more real than ever. And I am glad, a hundred times glad, that I saw Bethlehem, though at the time it seemed that that sight had swept away forever, every pleasant fancy & every cherished memory that ever the City of the Nativity had stored away in my mind & heart.

If you celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, have a Merry Christmas. If you celebrate Christmas as a secular occasion, have a Merry Christmas. If neither celebration appeals to you, you might want to take a moment to think of Isaac Newton and have a great December 25th.

One thought on “A Journey To Bethlehem”

  1. One is compelled to consider the interpretation that Bethlehem’s present absence of glory following its decay, subsequent from the birth of Christ, symbolises the decay of religion and its significance upon human government. Does it?

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