The manger

It is raining in Bethlehem. It had started in Jerusalem early this morning, and the Wall, which so effectively impedes everything else, has not stopped this one. The channels have already been clogged, it streams down the sloping streets, the strong gusts make ripples on it. The pilgrims climb from the bus garage to the Church of Nativity with umbrellas turning inside-out, walking on water. In the tiny stone gate of the huge ancient basilica you have to bend deep to enter. There is still silence inside, two hours before midnight, only a few people are sitting in front of the iconostasis. But in the crypt under the iconostasis, the air is stifling, devout Chinese, Malay and Philippine pilgrims are pressed in, singing strange melodies, kissing the great octagonal silver star, through whose circular glass window you can look down into the cave. In front of the star, an aggressive nun is scolding those who came down the upway stair, instead of having put a sign up there to distinguish between the two. Up, in front of the Armenian altar, an Arab policewoman is praying, she ready lifts the cordon to let me take close photos. In the Catholic church, built beside the Greek basilica, they are gathering for the midnight mass. I pass the security ceremony, they take away my umbrella, they will return it when I leave. In the cloister, young Franciscans stand in my way, we are looking for the common language, we find it in Spanish. They are asking for a ticket. There is no ticket. It could have been bought online from September, it has long gone. Behind me are coming together those who also have not heard about this. The young Franciscans are helpless, every five minutes they ask for one minute of patience. A half-hour later, a huge Arab scout commander comes out, screaming out all the uninvited visitors of the little Jesus. On the way out, I’m looking for my umbrella, but someone has taken it. The security guards are grunting, they do not care much about it. As I am persuading them, they put someone else’s in my hand. I accept it, I cannot go out without an umbrella to the heavy rain. The outcasts are standing helplessly in front of the church. I go back to the basilica, because while walking around it, I oserved, that the Catholic and Greek churches are connected with a large iron gate, through which they can directly pass from the Catholic church to the holy cave. Standing in the gate, you can see the Latin Mass. I am hovering at the gate, slowly others find their way here too, the vaulted doorway slowly gets filled. The Latin Patriarch and clergy, led by three odd beys in Ottoman clothes, walk into the church. They start the Office, and then the Mass. The choir is underperforming, their voices are straining in the higher regions. In the church to the left and right of the entrance columns, two large screens are hung up, and the believers fix their attention on them, because it can be better seen than the altar. Everyone is photographing uninterrupted, making selfies, and videos of the TVscreen. In our doorway, a red-nailed, blond-haired woman breaks through the people, to take with her mobile phone a lot of pictures, on which almost nothing can be seen. When questioned about her intrusion, she shouts outrageously: “I represent the Iraqi Christians!”

The Patriarch’s English-language sermon is applauded, and then most of the crowd starts out. It is half past twelve, the tourist buses go back to Jerusalem at 12:40, so whoever wants to stay on the second half of the Mass, should look for a taxi for himself. I go out of the church. It is still raining, splashing on the wheels of black limousines, the potentates have started to go home from the church. I go in, nobody is in may way any more. The Mass is still going on in the sanctuary of the slowly abandoned church. Nobody takes selfies any more, everyone who remained are paying attention to the priest. I sit down in a side chapel, facing the manger. I offer the ones I bring with myself.

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