In the 1950s nuns and priests filled the air with Jesus stories. As soon as we stepped on the threshold of our first grade classroom, we were required to memorize lessons from the Baltimore Catechism, the defunct and now-discredited school text of the Catholic religion.
Baltimore Catechism Lesson 75: Q. On what day was Jesus born? A. Jesus was born on Christmas day in a stable at Bethlehem.
The first town I’d ever heard about other than where I lived and where my relatives lived was Bethlehem. As a child, I dreamed of living in the inn next to that stable where Jesus was born. I longed to be with the donkeys and the sheep and the three kings on their camels. I really wanted to ride those camels. When we sang O Little Town of Bethlehem I pictured a serene knob of a place full of kind and loving people ready to temper my fears and fortify my hopes.
A classmate once showed us a tiny glass vial of soil her grandmother had brought back from Bethlehem. She said it was blessed by the Pope, adding gold-plated authenticity to its importance. This was my first inkling that Jesus’ birthplace still existed and that I might be able to go there myself someday.
Nearby Jerusalem? It was never on my wish list. Memorization of passages about Jesus’ suffering there left me repulsed by any thoughts of visiting Jerusalem.
Baltimore Catechism Lesson 371: Q. When did Our Lord suffer the “bloody sweat”? A. Our Lord suffered the “bloody sweat” while drops of blood came forth from every pore of His body, during His agony in the Garden of Olives, near Jerusalem.
Bethlehem was the object of my affection. The Church of the Nativity in Manger Square sits on top of a grotto, the Holy Crypt, where Jesus lay swaddled. This birthplace is disputed from time to time, but as a child my enthusiasm never waned. I wanted to see Bethlehem.
Two Palestinian refugee camps arose in Bethlehem in 1949 after the Palestine Partition drove Arab families from their homes. Six generations later they’ve not been allowed to return. Armed Israeli forces frequently raid the camps on the pretext of searching for “wanted” Palestinians. Young Palestinians exact revenge and risk their lives with the most ancient of weapons—rocks.
When Israel took Bethlehem from the Arabs after the Six-Day War in 1967, I thought Bethlehem would be destroyed forever. But all the wars, terrorist bombings, intifadas and violent protests didn’t stop grandmothers from visiting the Little Lord Jesus’ birthplace and bringing home souvenir vials of sacred dirt. I had high hopes I’d visit someday.
Israel relinquished Bethlehem to the Palestinians in 1995, promptly erecting a wall cutting Bethlehem off from Jerusalem. Palestinians are restricted from entering Jerusalem. Israelis are barred from entering Bethlehem.
Baltimore Catechism Lesson 259: Q. What other effects followed from the sin of our first parents? A. Our nature was corrupted by the sin of our first parents, which darkened our understanding, weakened our will, and left in us a strong inclination to evil.
A few weeks ago, on January 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. Abbas informed Putin the U.S. can no longer play a role in the Middle East peace process. Seven days later Donald Trump announced his anti-Palestinian “Deal of the Century” for the Middle East. Bethlehem erupted in a “day of rage”.
Baltimore Catechism Lesson 1155: Q. What are dreams and why is it forbidden to believe in them? A. Dreams are the thoughts we have in sleep, when our will is unable to guide them. It is forbidden to believe in them, because they are often ridiculous, unreasonable, or wicked, and are not governed by either reason or faith.
They say tourists get into and out of Bethlehem safely. But fear invades my deep and dreamless sleep. Thoughts of seeing Bethlehem have matured into my childhood imaginings.
And my dreams have gone the way of the Baltimore Catechism.