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E Pluribus Unum

29 December 2004

His business card read “King Solomon Bazaar—Olive Wood, Mother of Pearl, Diamonds, Gold, Silver & Brass.”  I scanned the name twice to make sure I had it right before looking up and saying, “Thank you, Adnan.  It’s getting a little wet out there.” 

“Sit down, sir, sit down.  You are under no obligation to buy anything in the store.  Sit down and make yourself at home.  What can I get you to drink?  Coffee?  Tea?  Wine?  We have a very good wine made by the Salesian monks right here in Bethlehem.” 

I told Adnan that a glass of wine would be just great.  My bones were still cold from being outside in the darkness and rain.  “Here you are, sir.  Now you just sit there and relax.  You are under no obligation to buy anything, but if you do, I will give you a good price.  Where are you from, sir?” 

“I’m from America,” I replied, “but I live in Amman.”  (With a touch of pride, I said that whole sentence in Arabic.)  Adnan smiled and brought his hands together in a sweeping dramatic clap.  “You live in Amman!” he replied in Arabic.  “Ahlen was ahlen!”—which meant, “Welcome!”   

I glanced around the store and saw about every religious icon one could imagine made out of hand-carved olive wood.  There were Crucifixes and Jerusalem Crosses, Nativity scenes and Christmas tree ornaments, praying hands and statuettes of Jesus carrying a little lamb.  “Merry Christmas!” I said, raising my glass.  “Hold on just one moment,” Adnan replied.  He disappeared into the back and returned with a glass of light brown liquid.  “I don’t drink wine, just Palestinian tea,” he said.  From behind one of the counters another man smiled and said, “That’s our way of saying whiskey.”  Adnan chuckled, raised his glass and said, “Okay then, Merry Christmas!” 

We clinked glasses and downed our charges.  “Are you a Christian?” I asked.  From his name, I thought not.  “No, I am a Muslim,” Adnan said, “but we are all brothers in Bethlehem--this night, and every night.  By the way, do you have a ticket for the Midnight Mass?”  I didn’t know one needed a ticket.  “How much are they?” I asked.  “They are free, but there are only a limited number of them given out.”  I told Adnan that in that case I would content myself with hanging out in Manger Square for the duration of the ceremony.  “No need for that, sir.  I have an extra pass you can have.  I hope you enjoy the service.” 

The door swung open and two more groups of pale faces came in out of the darkness and rain.  There was a family of four—husband, wife, two teenaged boys—and a party of three teenaged girls.  “Welcome!” Adnan said with a smile.  “Come in, come in.  Sit down and make yourself at home.  You’re under no obligation to buy anything.  Please let me get you something to drink.  Coffee?  Tea?  Wine?  We have very good local wine made by monks.  They serve the white wine, not the red, on Christmas Eve.” 

As the new people took off their coats, hats, and gloves, I asked them from where they hailed.  “Houston,” the family said almost in unison.  “Winnipeg,” said one of the girls.  “In Canada,” added the other two.  (I’ve found that our neighbors to the north always feel the need to tell you that their city is in Canada, as if Winnipeg by itself would not stand.  Texans, by contrast, suffer from no such insecurity.)   

We all sat and made small talk, comforted by the familiar sounds of English.  There were still a couple of hours to go before the Christmas Eve service began up the street at the Church of the Nativity.  No one was anxious to go back out in the cold, dark, and rain, so we stayed in the King Solomon Bazaar, feeling completely relaxed, but not feeling any obligation to buy anything.  Adnan reminded us of that several times.  He kept our glasses full and led us in a several toasts.  “Let us all hope, God willing, that we will have real peace in this land in 2005.”  We all concurred with a hearty Amen. 

The door opened again, and this time a middle-aged man and woman came in.  “Salaam o lakoom, Adnan,” was how they greeted the shop owner.  Turns out they were both American Presbyterian missionaries who’d lived in the Holy Land for some nine years.  “We’re not married, though,” they were both quick, for some reason, to point out to me.  “Have some wine,” Adnan said with a smile, “and we might be able to fix that.” 

The missionaries told me they could count on two hands the number of Americans who lived in Bethlehem.  There used to be a lot more before the second Intifada began in 2000 and the Israelis made an already difficult life even more so.  “The security wall is killing this town,” they replied.  “Have you seen it?”  I told them that I had seen the wall that kept the Palestinians—both Christian and Muslim—locked in a ghetto and cut off from all economic opportunities in nearby Jerusalem. 

“Let’s not talk about such things tonight,” Adnan interrupted.  “Tonight is a night of peace and friendship.  Have some more wine.”  As he filled my glass, the door opened again.  More tourists came in.  “Welcome, my friends!  Merry Christmas.  Please, come in.  Sit down.  You are under no obligation to buy anything.  Would you like a drink?  Coffee?  Tea?  Perhaps some good local wine to warm you up?”  Then he turned back to those of us already sitting down.  “Who knows some Christmas carols?” 

As luck would have it, the three girls from Winnipeg (that’s in Canada) were singers in their church choir back home.  After some gentle prodding, they sang a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace and then, with the rest of us providing backup, the certainly mandatory, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  It was a beautiful moment, made even more beautiful by the warm buzz I was feeling from the wine. 

I wanted to remember this very special Christmas Eve forever.  And though I was under no obligation to buy anything, but somewhat under the influence of both the wine and the Spirit, I bought for myself a hand-carved crčche made of olive wood, and also souvenirs for many of my friends and family members.  All told the bill came to over two hundred dollars.  “Please sir, you do not have to buy anything,” Adnan reminded me at the counter as I slapped down my credit card, “But if you insist, we prefer cash.” 

Afterwards we all headed up the street to Manger Square and then into the Church of the Nativity.  There I viewed the 14-point silver star that marked the spot where Jesus came into this world.  There was a Latin inscription, which, when translated, read, “Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born." 

We then moved through the interior courtyard to the Franciscan Church of Saint Catherine, where Midnight Mass was to be held.  The room was packed with people of every color, from every continent, and from all stages of life.  I pressed my way as far forward as I could, and ended up in the middle of the congregation, with a Mexican guy wearing a Baja pullover shirt to my right and an incredibly beautiful twenty-something French nun wearing a blue habit to my left.  She wasn’t just pretty, she was gorgeous.  I wondered how exactly I would explain myself to Saint Peter someday for checking out a nun on Christmas Eve in the place where Jesus was born.  Whether out of religious devotion or trembling superstition, I averted my eyes by staring at the very lifelike image of a crucified Christ hanging from a pillar in front of me. 

It was standing room only and it quickly became hot and muggy.  A couple of people fainted.  Near my position, a young Slavic woman holding a baby got comfort from a stranger; an old Spanish woman who fanned both mother and child. 

From the pulpit prayers were read out in several languages.  I was able to identify Spanish, French, German, Russian, Tagalong, Arabic, Japanese, Hindi, and Italian.  There were several more languages from Africa and East Asia that I could not identify with certainty.  As each prayer was read, different people in the packed congregation became animated, closing their eyes, and clasping their hands tightly together.  When the prayer was read in Italian, the Italians paid close attention.  When it was read in French, the French people perked up.  (To include the stunning sister to my left.  “Just keep staring at Jesus,” I thought to myself.)   

Shortly before the mass officially started, Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) walked up the center aisle and took a VIP seat in the front pew.  He recently succeeded Yasser Arafat as the Chairman of the PLO and is the favorite to win the Presidency of the Palestinian Authority when they have their election next month. 

That was an exciting moment, but not the most exciting one.  That moment—that one electric moment that I’d been hoping for—came when the choir burst into “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” a song that I and most everyone in the church knew the chorus to.  Moments before we were fragmented by our lack of understanding of Chinese or Portuguese or Swahili.  We were all disconnected clusters of strangers worshiping in strange tongues.  And then suddenly we were singing in the same language, in one voice, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!”  Everyone had a smile of discovery on his or her face.  We all looked around to see if the rest of the congregation was savoring this unexpected, magical moment of unity and understanding.  As long as the song went on, we were all plugged into each other.  Boundaries of country and color dissolved.  A thousand hearts ascended as one from the eternally mundane to the temporarily divine; a glimpse, perhaps of what dreams may come.