Dear editors of the Associated Press:
I have a dream.
It's a Christmas dream, actually.
I dream that some Christmas morning, after I get home from church on Dec. 25th, I will pick up my newspaper and, as always, see an Associated Press story with a Bethlehem dateline. This story will, of course, detail what happened on Christmas Eve and in the early hours of Christmas morning there in that ancient biblical town, with its strange mix of joyful pilgrims and tense security people.
But this time the story will be slightly different, in terms of the facts used to describe some of the religious rites on that first of two, yes two, Christmas celebrations in the churches, yes plural, located next to Manger Square.
Alas, this was not the year that my dream came true. Here is some of the key summary material in the 2016 AP report:
Christian clergymen welcomed the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ, as Christians worldwide begin to prepare to celebrate Christmas this year.
The Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, is the temporary chief clergyman to the local Catholic population. He traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Saturday in a traditional procession. Later, he was to celebrate Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built at the grotto revered as Jesus' birthplace.
"I wish this joyous atmosphere of Christmas will continue in the year and not just for a few days and I hope the coming year will bring a little more serenity and peaceful relations in our country. We need it," he said.
So what is the problem there?
It's the same problem that I see in these stories year after year. The Associated Press insists on putting the Dec. 25th Christmas Mass in the wrong church. Journalists are only a building or two off, in terms of the architecture at this crucial location in the history of the complex fabric of churches that are hanging on, trying to survive in the Middle East.
There are two churches, with two different names, that host Christmas services, on two different days because of two different calendars.
The more modern of the churches -- see the video at the top of this post, which has most of the key details wrong -- is the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine. It is located next to the ancient Orthodox basilica known as the Church of the Nativity. The high altar of the Orthodox sanctuary is located above the Grotto of the Nativity.
Take a look at this diagram to get the layout.
Honest, I am not making this up. Anyone who has visited Bethlehem -- I was able to worship in the 1,700-year-old Basilica in 2000, after my conversion to Orthodoxy -- is aware of how complex, but separate, these structure are. Consider this language from an online guide for tourists:
These days the Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem, Israel is probably best known as the venue where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem holds the midnight mass on Christmas Eve each year. The event is televised worldwide and the mass is attended by hundreds of Christians who come from near and far to celebrate the birth of Christ.
The Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem is a Roman Catholic Church right next door to the Church of the Nativity.
Journalists who are interested in accuracy need to know that the Catholic clergy did NOT celebrate a Western-Rite Mass at the altar in the Orthodox Church of the Nativity. If that had happened, that would have been an international news story in and of itself.
Now, most of the Orthodox and other Eastern churches in the Middle East will celebrate Christmas according to the ancient Julian calendar, which places the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at midnight on Jan. 7, meaning the services will start during the evening of Jan. 6th. (Most Orthodox Christians here in North America, such as my own congregation here in East Tennessee, celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th, but use the ancient calendar to calculate the date of Pascha, or Easter.)
That Orthodox Christmas liturgy will take place in the Church of the Nativity -- with little or no attention from global media. If you want to see what that looks like, watch the following video from 2013. Note that this is a very different building than St. Catherine's Church, seen in the 2016 video at the top of this post.
Yes, this is all a bit complicated. Almost everything about church history in the Middle East and elsewhere is complicated.
But facts matter. What is the journalistic logic for continuing to use the wrong names, when identifying the location of the Catholic and Orthodox rites on these two Christmas days, as in Dec. 25th and Jan. 7? Why not add a phrase or two so that you end up with something like the following, which is my own edited version of the copy at the top of this post:
Christian clergymen welcomed the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land inside the Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ. The Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, is the temporary chief clergyman to the local Catholic population. He traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Saturday in a traditional procession.
Later, he was to celebrate Midnight Mass in the Catholic sanctuary that is located next to the Church of the Nativity, built 1700 years ago above the grotto revered as Jesus' birthplace. The region's many Orthodox Christians will celebrate Christmas there on Jan. 7th, following the older Julian calendar.
It isn't very difficult to get this right. It only takes a little bit of attention to details.
Thank you for your attention.