Christmas is coming. The wrapping paper and artificial trees invaded stores before children could even initiate post-Halloween tooth decay.
What better time to turn our attention to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity? The chapel--originally built in A.D. 330 and rebuilt in its present form around 565--is supposedly located on the exact spot the Christ child was born.
Any realtor will tell you that location is key, and the structure's importance is only bolstered by its status as one of the world's oldest churches. However, there is more to the building's legacy than Mary's immaculate contractions.
Among Christians, the church's importance is universal, and a trinity of denominations begrudgingly share custodial duties and, therefore, ownership. Resident clerics representing Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic denominations routinely spar over the patchwork of chores that dictate who owns what in the chapel.
In 2007, roughly 80 Armenian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox priests brawled with brooms and stones after the Greeks attempted to place a ladder on Armenian territory in order to clean chandeliers. That fray took place on December 27 as the clerics were sweeping up after Christmas ceremonies.
Last October, a Greek Orthodox priest attempted to carry a mop and bucket up from the basement grotto by way of a Catholic-claimed staircase. An Armenian priest closed and locked the door, stranding the offending priest and several tourists for two hours.
The behavior is based on a compromise established by the Ottoman sultans who ruled Palestine from the 1500s through the early 20th century, which simply said things will be done as they have always been done. Whoever hung a tapestry or cleaned a column has the equivalent of Major League Baseball's expressed written consent to continue doing so. However, should someone else begin using or caring for an object, ownership passes on to them. The unwritten code is known very appropriately as the Status Quo.
"Each church has to protect its historical rights," said Father Athanasius Macora, Franciscan director of the Status Quo of the holy places. "One precedent can erode your ability to defend your position."
The Status Quo needs no introduction here in America. As families gather to observe Thanksgiving and Christmas the opportunity organically presents itself. Be it stockings or stuffing, garland or garnish, ownership of these defining (and often idealized) moments is cherished.
(By the way, the Status Quo goes both ways. If I quit watching football on Thanksgiving and start washing the dishes, who knows if I will ever reclaim the television?)
The Church of the Nativity has survived much on its own: Multiple invasions, regime changes, fires, earthquakes, and the 2002 Israeli siege of Bethlehem. Yet the biggest threat to its survival is an impasse created by the three caretakers' squabbles. The 500-year-old lead roof has leaked water for decades, allowing water to seep in, rotting and decaying wood, stone, paintings, and tapestries. Urgent restoration was put off because such a repair would drastically alter the Status Quo's ownership pedigree.
One wooden cross beam deteriorated to such a state, the Palestinian Authority finally intervened last month, designating $1 million into a building fund open for donations from other churches and donors around the world. By overstepping the Christians' petty infighting, the state gave proper restoration its first glimpse of hope since the last repairs were made in 1824.
As we approach such a festive season, it's easy to get caught up in how the front of the sanctuary is decorated or how someone's lack of Thanksgiving attendance is a tremendous and multifaceted snub. By keeping the focus on the actual Advent, the many things for which we are thankful no matter who makes it to the table, we can keep the supporting beams of our family and friends from decaying beyond repair.