The following narrative account of my late father Walter L. Matt’s visit to Bethlehem in 1943 is taken from his wartime diary. He served with the U.S. Army in Africa, Libya, Italy and elsewhere during World War II, working as a German translator and a war correspondent. This entry is being reproduced here because it gives us a glimpse of how much our world has changed since those long ago days and yet how the peace and grace of Christmas, then as now, overpowers all evil, even when the whole world is at war. When my father wrote the following he was 28 years old.
This account reminds us anew that no matter how many wars tear apart the cities of the world, in the end those that love the Child of Bethlehem will survive so long as we continue to believe and so long as we never lose hope. A merry Christmas to all and a happy and holy New Year to all the friends and allies of The Remnant. Keep the old Faith. MJM
Diary Entry: Christmas, 1943
By Walter L. Matt, RIP
(Published in The Remnant, December 15, 1968)
Once in my college glee club I remember what a feeling of inner rhapsody overcame me while listening to some hundred voices burst forth with the triumphant notes of Handel’s Messiah. A similar seventh-heaven feeling came over me again when my buddies and I arrived in Bethlehem the other day! It is a fairy-land town, a tranquil little place nestled in the crook of a flower-strewn hillside.
All the Christmas bells you’ve ever heard seem concentrated in the shadow of these verdant hills and your heart leaps as you approach the site where “shepherds watched” and the glad tidings were thundered from heaven to earth: “Unto you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord!”
You wish then that you could turn back the clock of the centuries and enter here at night in awe-struck company with simple shepherd men. Instead, you walk up the hill in company with a raucous chorus of Arab lads tagging your heels and leading you against your will into tiny old-world curio shops from which you emerge with mother-of-pearl rosaries, Dead Sea stones, olive wood ash trays, Gallilean sea shells or whatever else attracts your fancy.
An unsullied bit of Christendom is evident in Bethlehem. It is marked by the absence of muezzins, and, on the other hand, by the prevalence of churches and caroling bells. But how different is the dark little cave under the Church of the Nativity from the manger and stable of one’s childhood dreams!
As we approached it I thought of the days when I peeped starry-eyed under a huge shining Christmas tree at a picturesque little crib my brother had made. I remembered its thatched little roof, its stable-like walls, its feed troughs and great pile of straw on which the Wise Men knelt to adore “the new-born Child”. I looked about me at the hurrying crowds who, like myself, had made the pilgrimage to this magnificent shrine which Constantine built, and I seemed to hear children’s voices singing into a hushed winter night: O come all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
In this great church a service was in progress and people knelt from near and far and a few of us GIs entered. I thought the choir was filled with Sisters, but they turned out to be Bethlehem women wearing the tall, veiled headdress which is customary in these parts.
Beneath the high altar is the cave where Christ was born. We had to enter it by a short flight of steps and found it difficult to get past when several Greek priests came up in a cloud of swirling incense. Fifty-three silver lamps barely dispel the gloom of this low-vaulted, smoke-blackened cave. I saw the inlaid bronze star in a niche in the floor, and round it a Latin inscription: “Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.”
To me that message seemed hardly old. I had the overpowering feeling He had been born only moments before and we beheld Him now, and once again the world would have peace!
One feels disinclined to speak of such things, since they are after all so sacred. But I recall the almost subconscious prayer that escaped me while standing in this holy place: “Lord I am not worthy,” and how strongly I believed! It was the sheerest happiness I had ever known. It will remain a most blessed memory in the years to come.
We went up again, from the “stall of Bethlehem” into the church of the Nativity above. There a Mass was being offered and people were entering the nave of the church in ones and twos, silently, reverentially, as all these people do who come to worship at the site where Christ was born.
The women of Bethlehem are tall, straight, and graciously dignified. They wear blue skirts and a distinctive headdress which adds to their grace. The men too are tall, powerfully built, and in the candlelight of the church they move about almost majestically in their Oriental garb, like bearded knights of old. All of them proceed toward the altar now, removing their shoes before kneeling down.
Your thoughts ought to be focused on the Mass, but your impressions have been so profuse and have stormed in upon you with such overwhelming force that, instead, your mind keeps turning again and again to the poor grotto crib below you. How poorly furnished and miserable it must have been! Surely we would have found “room in the inn” someway, somehow! Surely we would have arranged a more suitable dwelling than this for the new-born King! or would we?
The Mass celebrant reads the gospel story now, as told by St. John: “He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. “ And you think to yourself that things are in reality no different today and that, even now, we find “no room” for Him in the inns and khans of our hearts, though the world has now, twice, been set aflame and still there is no peace.
But the priest at the altar continues, and there is hope and consolation in what he reads. “…but to as many as receive Him he gave the power of becoming sons of God; to those who believe…who are born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, not of the will of man, but of God”.
So you try now not to think of the world’s ugly face here in this hallowed place. Instead your thoughts are filled with rapture and peace and comfort. And to the priest’s solemnly chanted Gloria in excelsis Deo, you respond with innermost warmth: “and on earth peace,” please God, “peace to men of good will”! That, in fact, is the message that comes home to you most crystal clear at Bethlehem’s crib. And you at last leave the church of Christ’s nativity resolved that the Christmas message is the keystone to your own peace and happiness and to that of the world at large, and come what may, you will henceforth be of “good will” and you will no more doubt than the shepherds did but you will, like these simple men, “understand” the truth of things, namely, that the Word was made flesh and dwells amongst us and it is up to us to help spread the glad tidings of Bethlehem’s First Christmas till it touches the hearts of the farthermost shores!
You descend the hill now, along a stone-littered path, and cross the grass-covered fields where Ruth walked and on which the boy David tended his sheep. Below you lie the lush orchards and vineyards and beyond them the desolate mountains of Moab to the east.
Everywhere through the valley the convent bells are joyfully caroling once again, and as you gaze beyond the orchards to the far-flung hilltops, you wonder if your ears deceive you or whether a chorus of softly echoing voices isn’t whispering to you from your childhood and making you young again. “This day is born unto you a Savior who is Christ the King”. Come let us adore Him.