Lasallian Br Mark McKeon’s experience of his first Christmas in Bethlehem in 2014 was deeply profound and will stay with him always.
“I always remember sort of sitting in the university chapel, listening to the rings, talking about the Saviour being born in Bethlehem and I’m thinking, ‘here I am. I’m in Bethlehem now.’ It’s really emotional to realise that I’m here where it all started. It’s just got a special feel to it,” he said.
After serving five years as the pastoral director of Holy Cross Seminary in Auckland, Br Mark was asked to come back and help out at Bethlehem University, a Catholic co-educational university in the Lasallian tradition. “It’s like coming back home again. It just feels so right to be here. I think what helped me settle in very, very quickly was just the warm welcome I got from the people in the university who were so happy that I’ve come back to the place,” he said.
Br Mark said that Christmas in Bethlehem is ushered in with the arrival of the Custos of the Holy Land, Father Francesco Patton, to the Church of the Nativity on November 26, the day before the first Sunday of Advent. The Custos is from the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor who have been “guardians” of the Holy Land since the 1200s.
Br Mark said that the Custos was welcomed in Manger Square with a crowd of scouts and children playing drums and bagpipes.
“He came in and was welcomed to the Square. Then, he went to the Church of St Catherine,” Br Mark said. After that, the Custos processed to the Grotto of the Nativity, also called the Church of Nativity.
“What I’ve found in previous years is . . . a lot of the people who go to Manger Square are Muslims. They get up [for] the festivities of Christmas time. They like going down because they have a Christmas market as well in the Manger Square. So, they go down and get their picture taken in front of the tree,” he said. The Bethlehem Christmas tree was lit on December 4.
“When it comes to Christmas, we (De La Salle Brothers) actually [go to] midnight Mass in the university chapel, and we invite the faculty and employees to that,” he said.
“Following that, we go down to the Church of Nativity for Christmas Mass,” he said. “On Christmas morning, from about 2.30, every half hour, there’s a Mass in the Grotto. It’s like clockwork.”
Br Mark said that there are currently six De La Salle brothers at the university. This Christmas, they might get together with their Lasallian brothers from Jerusalem, Jaffa and Jordan.
Christmas traditions followed in Bethlehem revolve around food.
“What happens is we often get delivered food from people. We’re eating Middle Eastern type food. One of the delicacies is rice and mince wrapped up in grape leaves. They’re very tasty. I tend to like the one called musakhan, which is a chicken dish with red onions all chopped up finely then served with pita bread,” he said.
Br Mark said that the number of shops selling Christmas decorations in the predominantly Muslim area is “incredible”.
“On Manger Road at this time of the year, almost every third shop is a Christmas shop, selling all different types of things to decorate your home. Just yesterday, I saw a funny shop selling a blow-up nativity. It’s a bit tacky. There’s no way I’d buy it,” he said with a laugh.
Family is the highlight of the celebration at Christmas all over the world, but it takes a more poignant meaning in Palestine.
“Family is very important particularly . . . because of the restrictions that they are under all the time. Events like baptisms and weddings, Easter time, Christmas time become major celebrations to bring people together. I guess to give thanks to God and just to be able to celebrate a degree of freedom amidst all the restrictions they are under,” he said.
This is another aspect of why Br Mark wanted to serve in the university.
“You know you are making a difference. The people here know that the brothers don’t have to be here, but have made the choice to be at the university really in solidarity with them. And to be living in solidarity with them, you live through the occupation, the restrictions of being under Israeli occupation,” he explained.
Br Mark said that they do not fully know what Palestinians are really experiencing because the brothers still have the freedom to move around “whereas half of my students can’t do that because they don’t have the correct IDs or correct permissions to go when they want into Jerusalem”.
He said although they are occupied by Israel, they hardly see any Israelis in Bethlehem.
“We hear them because, in Bethlehem itself, there are three refugee camps for those Palestinians who have been internally displaced,” he said. “We often hear at night-time the Israeli incursions into these camps when they are trying to arrest someone in those refugee camps. We hear the guns or the tear gas canisters that are going up at night-time.”
He said there has been recently a lot of talk about the “two-state solution”, which now seems to focus more on equal rights for the people.
“At the moment, there are certainly no equal rights between Palestinians and Israelis. And really that has to be the focus and . . . basis for any dialogue between Israel and Palestine,” he reflected.
Br Mark said that, at the university, his task is to teach remedial English to first year students, to accompany the Christian students, and to spearhead the spiritual and Lasallian formation of the staff.
“This time around, I’m more free to move around the university and to listen to people. What I find is that they just want someone to talk to about their challenges. They’ll talk to you about anything: family issues, issues at the university, which is great,” he said.
He added that renewing old friendships had been a blessing for him.
Asked how long he will be staying at the university, Br Mark said, “as long as I’m healthy”.