From Baghdad to Bethlehem



“I haven’t prayed for twenty-five years,” he commented as we stepped off the hotel elevator in Jerusalem. Like many casual acquaintances, my new found friend from Baghdad and I had initiated our chat with random remarks about a common interest. This time it wasn’t the weather!

The atmosphere of the Holy City during Christmas is conducive to spiritual dialogue. After all, thousands of visitors come to this sacred region each year on some type of personal pilgrimage.

We talked about the sights we each had visited that day — Jericho, the River Jordan, and Samaria. He was tremendously interested in the ancient scroll of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) that I had seen earlier in the day at the synagogue in Samaria. I told him how we had waited patiently at the entrance of the synagogue for three separate priests to arrive, each with one key. They unlocked three separate locks and finally we were permitted to enter and view the valuable scroll. It was written on the sheepskin of the sacrificial animal. The High Priest claimed it was written only thirteen years after the death of Moses.

As we stood in the lobby, my talkative friend chain-smoked one cigarette after another while he explained his purpose for driving the 500 miles from Baghdad to Bethlehem. For the past twenty-five years he had felt no desire to pray, but lately an idea began to evolve in his mind. Perhaps he could pray if he could attend the midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is built over the traditional location of the stable in which Jesus was born.

The conversation was becoming interesting so we invited him into our room, overlooking the road to Damascus. It was easy to glance out the window and imagine Saul hurriedly leaving Jerusalem with legal documents authorizing the persecution of Christians in Damascus — having no idea what was going to happen to him as he journeyed up the road a short distance.

Now back to my gregarious guest in the hotel room. It has been said, “Prayer is the breath of the Christian.” It comes as naturally as breathing to most believers, but my friend from Baghdad met a number of obstacles on his way to prayer. Driving through the great desert countries of ancient Persia, Syria and Jordan, he has followed part of the trail Abraham trod as he left the land of the Chaldeans.

Bypassing Nineveh he drove on to Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. There he discovered a number of reasons why this city is so famous. It is the home of the world’s largest covered bazaar. What an experience to browse among the hundreds of stalls — elbowing one’s way through the throngs. The biblical street called “Straight” is still a busy thoroughfare. The home of Simon is now a Greek Orthodox Church. The great Moslem mosque housing a large tomb containing the head of John the Baptist is in the midst of all this hustle and bustle. Before entering the temple visitors are required to put special covers over their shoes so they will not defile the temple (or the beautiful Persian rugs that cover the floors).

After entering Jordan from Syria and passing through Amman (associated with David and Bathsheba) our friend from the land of the Arabian nights finally arrived in Jerusalem a few days before Christmas. The day following our chat, we each went our separate way sheading the short distance toward David’s town. I thought about our conversation and sincerely hoped he would be able to establish communication with his creator.

Christmas Eve my wife and I joined the crowd of approximately 5,000 people from many countries who met at Shepherds’ Field for a carol sing. This is the same field where shepherds kept watch that first Christmas Eve. It was fascinating to walk through the throng and hear the familiar carols sung in many unfamiliar languages. The stars were so very bright. One could just imagine the skies opening up and a host of heavenly beings breaking forth in song. A lady standing in front of us was singing with a clear sweet voice in what we thought to be Arabic. Eventually she turned to us and asked: “Are you visitors?” After learning we were from San Francisco she immediately said: “You come and visit in my house.” Her humble home was not far away. We spent about two hours with the family that Christmas Eve. Their hospitality was so genuine and the Turkish coffee so strong!

Leaving the small home we drove the two miles into Bethlehem. To our amazement, Manger Square– a large area in front of The Church of The Nativity–was a hubbub of noise and confusion. The present residents of Bethlehem, predominantly Muslim, do not observe Christmas as we do. It affords them an opportunity to set up their street stands and sell souvenirs, food, confections and drinks to the tourists. A carnival spirit prevailed outside the church. Incidentally, we were there exactly one hundred years after Phillips Brooks visited Bethlehem and was inspired to write the words “0 little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” That night it was anything but still!

The fortunate ones who had been able to obtain a ticket for the midnight mass bent low as they entered the small door into the Church of The Nativity. Inside there was the crush of body against body, people pushing and squeezing for a better position. Unfortunately the rudeness and even occasional cursing that accompanies the desire of spectators for a better vantage point was evident. All of this was part of the hindrances our friend from Baghdad experienced on his way to a place of prayer. I’m quite sure he pushed and shoved as much as anyone because of his great desire to worship in this Holy Place.

Back in Jerusalem the day after Christmas, we happened to meet again in the hotel lobby. I was anxious to know if he had finally been able to pray. Forgetting the crowds and confusion, he had knelt at the shrine marking the site of the manger, and as the bells rang out at midnight, he experienced an inward assurance. For the first time in twenty-five years he had actually prayed.

From the bazaars and minarets of Baghdad, described as a city of wares and prayers, a longing soul had traveled many miles to Bethlehem — to pray. And yet, how wonderful to know that our omnipresent God is always listening for even the faintest whisper. All we need to do is lift our heart and voice to him at any time, from any place.

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