24.12.1964 - 24.12.1964
Thursday 24-12-64 Christmas Eve
We set off for Bethlehem at about 11am, and shortly after getting onto the Bethlehem Road we were given a lift by three Lebanese nuns, who thought we were priests in our black duffle coats with hoods. They did not throw us out when they discovered their mistake however, and we were soon at the Church of the Nativity. We went down to the Grotto of the Nativity in the crypt beneath the sanctuary and I was more moved by the scene there than at any of the other Holy Places I have been to.
Because it was Christmas Eve, and I was at the traditional spot where Christ was born, and many others were standing around in silent contemplation, and there were crowds outside in Manger Square and a solemn procession getting ready for the arrival of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, I was very conscious of the importance of the occasion and the sanctity of the moment.
Afterwards we watched the procession move into the church, and it was all very grand and colourful.
There were police and military everywhere, of course, and a huge crowd of locals, tourists and others. There were Christmas carols playing over a loud speaker. Once the procession had moved into the church there followed some ceremony with much singing. Ade thought the choir was lousy, but I thought it wasn’t too bad, though their special variation tended to become monotonous. At 4.30 we took a long walk out to Shepherd’s Fields, where the YMCA were holding a carol service. In a pine grove, in a specially lit area of the field, around the Shepherd’s Cave, Christians of all nationalities sang carols as the evening deepened. Looking across the rocky hillsides around Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and singing carols was a wonderful experience, and I believe that next year, in retrospect, it will seem even more so.
At the conclusion of the service, everyone filed through the cave to partake of the Shepherd’s Supper, which consisted of a small piece of bread and some mutton. We bumped into the Doughty’s again, the Australian U.N. family we have met. They got us back to Bethlehem in their jeep wagon and gave us a dinner of sandwiches, mince pies, beer, nuts and fruit. We are to spend Christmas Day with them for more food, talk and grog, and a bath. Around 9.30 pm the crowd started moving into St. Catherine’s Church for midnight mass and there was great confusion and disorganisation. It was a typical mob crush at some stages and it was all policed and everything left a nasty taste in the mouth. Ade and I managed to get seats, which there were not many of, and the entire space soon filled up. The pre-mass service commenced at 11 pm and the whole service and the mass which followed were filled with splendour, song and rousing spiritual music. At the climactic Gloria, lights suddenly blazed high above the altar, reading ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’. As Father Stockton had told us, “generally everything that opens and shuts”. I was not fully occupied with the mass however, as the goings on in the body of the church were just as interesting. An American couple standing close by were accomplishing one of the two great ambitions of their lives (the other was the Oberammergau Passion Play), yet left half way through. Many of the official guests arrived late and some looked quite bored. Guards stamped on the floor with their staffs to make a passage through the crowd, and down the aisle in feathered hats walked uniformed ambassadors covered with decorations. The Governor of Jerusalem came, as did many others of all nationalities. A man collapsed close by and by this time it was Christmas Day.
The mass concluded with a procession back up the aisle from the altar, bearing the statue of the infant Jesus, which would be symbolically placed in the Grotto of the Nativity. Many people leaned across and touched it as it passed - to what effect , I do not know. The filing out then began through a single door on the side. Once outside I tapped on the first semi-full car and we got a lift back to Jerusalem with a government official and his two passengers, an American professor and his wife. We had to rouse the hotel manager, and were in bed by 2.30 am. A really full and worthwhile day, all of which will seem even better in retrospect next year. Where will I be then, and how will I be thinking and acting?