Living Water in the House of Bread

In the year 2000, I thought it would be an opportune time to visit the Holy Land, and especially Bethlehem for Christmas to see what it was like two m

Dec 24, 2020

By Anil Ntto
In the year 2000, I thought it would be an opportune time to visit the Holy Land, and especially Bethlehem for Christmas to see what it was like two millenia after the birth of Jesus.

I booked a place with a travel agency, paid a small fortune, and was all set to go. But soon after that, the travel agent called me to say that all tours to the Holy Land had been cancelled. The second Palestinian uprising broke out in September 2000, in protest at the Israeli leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque in east Jerusalem, a site revered by both Jews and Muslims.

So that was that. I got a refund from the travel agency, but I was crestfallen.

Twenty years on, we live in a world plagued by a different set of calamaties: the coronavirus pandemic, a global economic slump, climate change and vast wealth inequality.

The visible signs of climate change earlier this year have been almost forgotten as the pandemic crept in, sending the global economy crashing.

As people stayed at home, the environment took a breather. For a while, the air smelt fresher, the haze vanished, birds sang. It offered us a chance to look at how our model of unlimited economic growth was sending the planet hurtling towards climate catastrophe.

The lockdowns battered the economy, and many lost their jobs. More and more people had to rely on handouts. Others had to adapt to a “new normal”.

But not everyone suffered equally. Some  – the world’s richest – found their wealth rising. For instance, the world’s richest person, Jeff Bezos, the founder of online shopping platform Amazon, saw his wealth surge $76bn this year. At the peak of the economic crisis, from April to July, billionaires’ wealth soared by 28 per cent. Some of these billionaires and the superwealthy had the money – with interest rates so low – to buy shares at low prices when equity markets were crashing.

Some of these low share prices, especially in certain technology companies, have since recovered, thus expanding the wealth of their wealthy owners. Not a few tycoons around the world also benefited from government bailouts and wage subsidies.

By contrast, many ordinary people found it tough going. The absence of any significant wealth tax means the gap between the poorest and the richest has widened to a chasm. The super-wealthy are able to hide their wealth in offshore tax havens and secret bank accounts, sometimes using proxies.

Let’s peer into the world Jesus was born into, two thousand years ago. It was a world of turmoil, sporadic outbreaks of violence, disease and poverty in a land that  was supposed to be flowing with milk and honey. Like today, the disparity in wealth was noticeable.

The Gospels tell us Jesus was born in Bethlehem – a name which means House of Bread in Hebrew and House of Meat in Arabic, a name initially derived from the Canaanite god of fertility, Lehem. Almost 800m above sea level, Bethlehem lies about 30m higher than Jerusalem, which is 10km to the north. Summers are hot and dry and winters mild and wet.

Up on a hill, Bethlehem also sits on a huge aquifer with some of the sweetest tasting water beneath the ground. A reservoir was built here more than 2,000 years ago. Herod “the Great” built three more large reservoirs to the south of Bethlehem – known as Solomon’s Pools – around the time of Jesus’ birth. These provide water to Jerusalem.

For Mary and Joseph, it was a gruelling 155km journey from Nazareth in Galilee in the north to Bethlehem in Judah in the south. This trip might have taken a week or more, moving uphill and downhill along the valley of the Jordan River and then through the hills near Jerusalem.

Along the way, through or near the forests, the danger  of wild animals and outlaws lurked. Not an ideal journey for a young woman about to give birth. When they arrived in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary would have found the place teeming with people from all over. This was the place David was from and where he was crowned king. But the only refuge available for the couple would have probably been a cave or even a stable in a relative’s home. In any case, it would have been dark and not the most hygienic place for a child to be born — on a stone manger, the trough where animals might drink — perhaps in the company of sheep and the donkeys used by the travellers. Nearby were the humble shepherds, low in the social hierarchy of the time.

Today, Bethlehem lies in Palestinian territory and is encircled by an illegal security wall and dozens of Israeli settlements. Some say it almost resembles an open-air prison,its economy largely reliant on the tourism industry. Down the ages till today, it has also been the home of refugees. Economically suffocated by the security wall, many residents of Bethlehem — Muslims and Christians alike — have emigrated.

How apt that the Bread of Life was born in this obscure little town, known as the House of Bread. And how poetic that the man who promised us Living Water that would never leave us thirsty was born at a site with an abundant source of natural water below the ground.

God knows how much our world needs this Living Bread and Water now.

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