I am so pleased to note that our upcoming trip to Israel includes a visit to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity.
Seeing this Christian Holy Site on the itinerary brought my mind back to 1975 and a schoolteacher from Utah named Andrea. I cannot recall her last name; I have not seen nor heard from her since then, but I shall never forget her.
Our trip was sponsored by the National Education Association, and it offered professional educators (like Vickie) and their spouses (like me) an irresistible rate to tour “Israel and the Holy Land” over winter (read Christmas) recess.
On the day of departure the forecast was for snow, so we booked our airport Limo to allow an extra two hours to gets us to JFK from my mother’s apartment in East Orange, NJ.
Long story short, snow became a near blizzard. Not only did we not arrive two hours early, we missed the plane altogether. We learned that our Lufthansa flight was the only one that took off that evening.
Andrea, from Utah, also missed the flight. So the airline (those were the days) put us up at a hotel and booked us On a flight the next day. Our itinerary said we would visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve for midnight mass at Church of the Nativity.
For Andrea, a faithful Catholic, Midnight Mass at the Church if the Nativity was not only the highlight of the trip, it was the raison d’etre.
Unfortunately, our missed flight was likely to put our arrival too late to join the group’s Christmas Eve excursion to Bethlehem. “It’s not that big a deal, Andrea,”I said, “I have been to the Church of the Nativity. It is very small, and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is an invitation only VIP event. I am certain the plan is for us to be among the crowd in manger square and experience that unique atmosphere, but there is no way, I am sure, that our tour group is on the invitation list for the mass itself.”
Andrea would not hear of it. “Do you see what it says here,” she exclaimed holding the itinerary about four inches from my face: Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity.”
“Yes,” I replied, “at the church, meaning in the courtyard (which is something, I imagine, like being in Times Square on New Year’s Eve), but not in the small church for the service.
Not only did she not believe me, but by the time we landed in Tel Aviv at about Six PM on December 24, she had me almost convinced that we were to be guests inside the church. We rushed to our Jerusalem hotel only to learn that our group, had left for Bethlehem an hour earlier.
Vickie, pregnant with our first child Leo, was totally exhausted, so I volunteered to take Andrea to Bethlehem. When we arrived, Manger Square was packed. We searched in vain “for Dr.Plante and our group from the NEA.” Our task was nigh impossible because neither of us knew what Dr. Plante or anyone in our group looked like.
Suddenly at eleven o’clock a narrow gateway near the church opened, and Andrea and I joined the throng streaming toward it. We managed to pass that roadblock but then came to an even narrower gate where a guard questioned everyone going though and checked for weapons or bombs. Since we had neither of those, we passed that checkpoint as well. Finally with the entrance to the church just in front of us, we confronted another one-person-at-a-time check point where a Palestinian named Mr.Nasser was examining the invitations that those entitled to enter had to present.
Now, I was certain, we were cooked for sure.
When our turn came, I explained to Mr. Nasser how we missed our plane and were part of “a special delegation” with Dr. Plante from the National Education Association in the United States. I am sure he has our invitations. Mr Nasser sized up the situation and replied, “You (pointing to me) go into the church, find this man and bring her ticket out to her here. If you do not find him, you too must come back out.”
So I entered the church and asked every likely suspect if he were Dr. Plante. No luck. Meanwhile Mr. Nasser had entered the church and when I caught sight of him I hid behind a pillar hoping he would not see me and make me leave.
Then a miracle occurred. Literally five minutes before the service was to begin ANDREA APPEARED.
“How did you do it,” I asked?
“Someone outside had an extra invitation,” she answered, “and gave it to me.
And that’s how I get to attend Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity.
Back at the hotel we met up with our group the next morning at breakfast. They were all talking excitedly about heir experience of being in Manger Square outside the church where Jesus was born on Christmas Eve. They were dumbfounded by our story because no one expected to be inside the church itself … no one that is except Andrea.