Holy Land Christians And The Olive Tree

The olivewood carving craft was brought to Bethlehem by the Franciscans in the 14th Century. Saint Francis is said to have introduced the first nativity olivewood creche in his hometown of Assisi.

The olive tree is ideal for the environment all through the West Bank, especially in the area around Bethlehem. It does not need much soil for its roots to flourish, nor does it require much water to grow, but its lifetime spans generations. The tradition is that one plants olive trees for oneself, but also for future generations. Christ told his disciples to learn from the fruit-bearing trees.

Every year the farmers of the Holy Land pick the olives in the middle of October. During the same season, they cut (prune) some of the branches. The pruning idea is to open the tree to let the sun well lights the fruits and the foliage inside. The pruning of olive trees must be done with hand saw not electric because the smoke that come from the diesel or gas saws affects the taste of olives and the olive oil.

Christians in the Bethlehem area are a whole lot like olive trees. After two thousand years there are still faithful Christians living there. They are descendants of those first who followed Jesus. Christians live mostly in the Palestinian territories in the Bethlehem area, and in East Jerusalem. Many do live in Israeli-controlled areas like Nablus and Nazareth. All are Palestinian Christians Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. They have been faithful followers of Christ through the ages. They have lived in the land of their ancestors, some working in the same terraced olive gardens that have been around since the Romans controlled these lands, some two thousand years ago.

Since this latest round of violence, which has been largely directed at two of the only-remaining predominantly Christian villages, it is especially problematic. The Christians are afraid, and many are leaving. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are out of work. Starvation is not far off. Many Israelis and Palestinians depend on the tourism industry and obviously many are without jobs. Tourism is nonexistent in Arab towns and just about so in Jerusalem and Israel. Everyone is suffering.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night": Luke 2:8. Beit Sahour is a little village, just east of Bethlehem. It is the town known for the Shepherds' Field, and is so beautiful. One can see shepherds tending their sheep, even today. It is mostly a Christian village. It is here that the olivewood workshops are found.

It has never been easy for the faithful Christians. There have been all kinds of troubles: during Roman times they had to hide in caves to worship; through the Ottoman Empire and the times of the Crusaders many left. But never has it been this bad: In 1948, Christians comprised about 18% of the Holy Land population; now there are less than 2%. Imagine the land of Jesus with no Christians. The churches are just museums, no longer lovingly tended by Christians.

Like the olive trees, the Christians of the Holy Land have spanned generations. They have labored and loved their land. They have tended it carefully, and lovingly tell the stories.

More than 1000 Christian artisans and their families carve these breathtaking religious figures for living. We need to help them stay. We must carefully tend to our roots.

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