I had seen pictures of the security wall around Bethlehem and its West Bank border. I had heard stories. Our tour guide – it was the one organized tour we took, uncertain of travel and transfer between intertwined authorities and nations – our tour guide warned us not to take pictures of the wall as we approached.

“This is a militarized zone,” he emphasized, employing a phrase we had heard before on this journey through the holy lands. “If they see you, the soldiers will board the bus and examine every camera and phone of every passenger.”

Security wall, Bethlehem
Security wall, Bethlehem. Photo Rosalind C Hughes

Beyond the border, he said, “Now pull out your phones.” We saw organized and eloquent graffiti – some local, some by Banksy. It seemed strange to elevate a symbol and instrument of division and disruption to celebrity status; but perhaps the spotlight is preferable to the searchlight.

Life between the borders of that bewildering and beautiful region can be complicated, even for the visitor; overwhelmingly ironic; often tragic.

At the site of Jesus’s baptism we witnessed ululating worshippers bathing in the narrow, brown stream of the Jordan River, within reach of a single swim-stroke, yet removed from us completely and comprehensively by the invisible chasm of an international boundary floating in the shallow waters of another militarized zone.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). We should be able to overcome such barriers; but the church turns out to be as deft and determined at dividing ourselves as any other authority.

In a church atop a mountain, a velvet rope with a tour guide stationed like a nightclub bouncer filtered pilgrims according to the colour of their lanyards and name tags; the chosen few were admitted to a select celebration of Holy Communion. The priest’s back was turned towards the tourists who watched, some hungrily, from beyond the manned barrier.

Back in Bethlehem, beneath the churches built to celebrate the birth of Jesus – the Christ child, the Light of the Nations, the Prince of Peace – in a natural cave thought once to have served as a stable, we found a most unnatural stone wall dividing denominations, communities of faith, Christians who each claim their own piece of the mystery and miracle of the Nativity and God’s Incarnation.

Grotto of the Nativity
Peering through the peephole between chambers of the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Photo Rosalind C Hughes

Imagine the shepherds, led by choirs of angels, lit by a star, entering the little town of Bethlehem to find a cave converted to a makeshift maternity ward; hearing the infant cry of the Incarnate One, and searching in the dark with scrabbling hands and nails for a gap in the wall that would lead them to his glory.

Like children lined up at a magical keyhole, we pressed our faces to a pinpoint in the wall, watching the pilgrims on the other side who never glanced our way.

There is a difference between self-differentiation and walled division. When we seek to divvy up the divine, we all miss out on God’s expansive Oneness, God’s unique otherness. When we hide the image of God from her own reflection, we further diminish our vision of the mysterious and ineffable unity that informs all of creation.

Rosalind C Hughes is an Episcopal priest and writer living in northeast Ohio, although she grew up in Great Britain and lived briefly in Singapore, too. Her blog, at http://www.rosalindhughes.com, is called Over the Water.

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