Oh, little town that she calls home   2008/12/04
By: BRIAN J. LOWNEY of The Rhode Island Catholic

BARRINGTON — For Carmelite Sister Eileen Nasser, the seasons of Advent and Christmas always evoke prayerful and beautiful memories of growing up in Bethlehem.

“I am proud to be born where Jesus came to the earth, the land where God had chosen for Jesus to be born in,” said Sister Nasser, noting that when she was born in Bethlehem in 1948, the holy city was “quite empty of material things but full of life and joy.”

Sister Nasser lived in a large stone home about a half mile from the nativity grotto, where tradition says Jesus was born.

“The Nativity Church built on the site was my parish church,” she recalled.

Sixty years ago, there was a Christian majority living in the city. Sister Nasser estimates that the population of the popular pilgrimage destination was then about 15,000, with large communities of Latin-rite Catholics and Greek Orthodox, and a small community of Melkite Greek Catholics. The city also boasted small Anglican and Lutheran communities, as well as Armenians, and Syriacs, who preserved the Aramaic language that was spoken at the time of Jesus. There was also a large Muslim population.

Celebrations for the birth of Jesus began annually on December 15 with a novena that lasted until December 23.

“The novena took place in the evening; every day a Mass was concelebrated and a special preacher was chosen for the homily,” she recalled. “The church was full every night. A big pine tree that was in the middle of Nativity Square was decorated; that was the only decoration at the time, with lights. Later on, a sign, ‘Welcome to Bethlehem,’ was put up at the city entrance.”

On December 24, the Patriarch of Jerusalem entered the city at 1:30 p.m. in anticipation of the celebration of midnight Mass in the Nativity Church. He was greeted at the city border by the citizens of Bethlehem and surrounding villages, and was officially welcomed by the mayor of Bethlehem and local religious leaders once he arrived in Nativity Square. Worshippers then proceeded to the Nativity Church, where the patriarch led those gathered in prayer.

“On our way home, there were sellers of Arabic sweets on both sides of the street selling their specialties,” Sister Nasser remembered. “The one special sweet for Christmas is made with sesame, peanuts and thick syrup.”

At midnight Mass, national civic and military leaders, as well as ambassadors from many nations were invited as guests of honor. Sister Nasser’s brothers served as ushers, helping to seat the many international pilgrims who attended the prayer-filled celebration.

The young woman and her sisters always attended early morning Christmas Mass at 2 a.m., celebrated in the Nativity grotto where Christ was born.

“It was something very special,” she said. “Out of all the people in the world, I could be there that night!”

On Christmas Day, relatives gathered to enjoy ethnic specialties such as stuffed grape leaves and zucchini, as well as mamoul, a traditional holiday molded shortbread cookie filled with ground walnuts or dates.

“I lived most of my life in Bethlehem,” Sister Nasser acknowledged, noting that she moved to the Barrington Carmel nine years ago.

She attended Christmas services at the grotto for many years, before entering the Carmelite convent in Bethlehem, where she lived for 30 years. As a Carmelite sister, she rarely left the cloister, except for medical appointments.

“I could hear the Christmas music from Nativity Church, and I could see the fireworks at night and the illumination of the Nativity Church and Nativity Square,” she noted, adding that the sisters never left the cloister to attend the Christmas services.

“It is a peaceful place to be,” she added, noting that faith-filled pilgrims from all over the world flock to the Holy Land during Advent and Christmas, as well as throughout the year.

During the 50 years she lived in Bethlehem, she was not often affected by the wars and politically-driven skirmishes that have plagued the region for decades.

“There were times when we could hear gunfire and the destruction of buildings from the carmel,” Sister Nasser said, recalling that one night, several of the monastery’s windows were shattered and her bedroom door opened as the convent building shook following explosions in the neighborhood.

“I prayed ‘Into your hands Lord, I give you my life,” Sister Nasser said, believing that the sisters would be killed that night.

She visited her birthplace earlier this year, and emphasized that despite heavy security and occasional isolated arrests and altercations, life in Bethlehem remains simple.

“You can feel a bit of sadness in the hearts of the people,” she admitted, noting that the citizens of Bethlehem live in hope that political difficulties in the region will be resolved. She added that many Christians have left the area.

“My prayer is that the town finds peace and there is total joy in the hearts of the people,” she concluded.

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