Giles Fraser, former Dean of St Paul's in a recent column in The Guardian puts his finger on a critical issue concerning the relationship between holiness and justice that was provoked by visit to Bethlehem.
"This is the place where Jesus Christ was born," whispers a guide in an affected and well practised baritone. Bells jingle and incense fills the church. And thousands queue up for the experience with hushed reverence. Buses from plush Jerusalem hotels make their way through the Israeli checkpoint and disgorge their passengers just a few paces from the narrow entrance to this most holy of Christian shrines.
Crusaders lowered the once grand entrance so as to stop pilgrims entering the church on horseback. Nothing so profane as a horse, and its inevitable waste products, must go anywhere near so sacred a place. Leviticus 10.10 puts it thus: "You are to put a difference between the holy and the unholy, between the clean and the unclean." In other words, the church must be protected from the world.
Sitting on the far side of Manger Square, I find myself getting more and more angry with this deeply rooted understanding of holiness. Bethlehem is a place of such vast injustice and social deprivation. The Israeli separation barrier has severed the whole town from its traditional sources of social and economic vitality. Farmers can no longer reach their olive trees. Families who live just a few miles apart can no longer visit each other. Graffiti on the vast concrete wall offers a slender message of hope: "Nothing lasts for ever."
But it seems that for many of the pilgrims to Bethlehem, this complex political reality is something to be passed by on the other side. They have come to find a sacred space that is as protected from politics as the holy is from the unholy. Yet there is a terrible irony in all this. For the birth of Jesus Christ, in a smelly cow shed, and threatened by the forces of occupation, represents a wholesale rejection of precisely this idea of holiness. God is no longer to be set in some pristine otherness. The sacred is no longer to be protected from the profane. Which is why Jesus makes such an ostentatious show of fraternising with those who were traditionally debarred from holy space – the lame and blind, sinners, lepers, menstruating women.
In the life of Jesus, holiness is redefined as justice. Like the prophets before him, he is at best indifferent and at worst downright hostile to traditional forms of protection against defilement – washing, ringfencing the Sabbath from work, and so on. The task of religious professionals is not to keep God clean, as one might defend a brand new exercise book from inky fingers. "I have come to give good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, sight to the blind." Occupy St Paul's: no church should insulate itself from human raw need