First and foremost, I wish all of you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year! I offer my sincerest apologies for the delay in new posts - these past few months have seen both my transition from military life to the civilian world and the start of my graduate studies. I will do my utmost to finish my series on King Richard's Crusade and hopefully some new topics as well. However, due to the increased tempo of my new life, posts will be a bit less frequent than past times. Thanks for your understanding.
As you enjoy your Christmas festivities, I'd like to share with you one of my favorite stories from the season - one that takes place during the First Crusade. In the winter of 1098-1099, the Frankish leadership finally resolved their internal conflicts that had kept the army delayed in the Antioch region and were at last en route to the final end-goal, Jerusalem. While the main army was still on the march, Godfrey of Boullion dispatched a party of knights under the command of his younger brother, Baldwin (the ingenious conqueror of the County of Edessa and future Baldwin I of Jerusalem) and Bohemond's nephew, Tancred. Their objective was to secure the fabled city of Bethlehem. Strategically, Bethlehem was a critical outpost south of Jerusalem and securing it would protect the southern flank of the army as it settled into siege. However, the spiritual importance of the city that witnessed the birth of the God-Man Himself a thousand years ago was by no means lost on the Crusaders either. As Baldwin and Tancred rode hard for Bethlehem, they became the first Crusaders to view Jerusalem from the crest of a hill later named Mont Joie by later generations of crusading knights.
Arriving in Bethlehem, they found that the Fatmid garrison had abandoned the city to reinforce Jerusalem. As they entered the city of the shepherds, one can imagine the uncertainty of the situation must have made the knights tense. However, they were approached by a lone local man who surprisingly spoke Greek. The man identified himself as the local priest who had shepherded the local Christian community that had survived in secret under Islamic rule for nearly three centuries. Upon the arrival of the Crusaders, the entire community came out into the streets. Some reached out to touch the warriors, others wept for joy that God had rescued them at last. The priest led Baldwin and Tancred to a ruin that seemed to be nothing but a pile of rubble. At his direction, men pulled up layers of stones to reveal the site of the manger where God first laid His infant head to rest on earth. After the Muslim conquest, the old Basilica had been torn down and the relics of Christ's birth had been hidden away and safeguarded for generations by the locals who still cherished the memory of that holy night. The arrival of the Christian knights from the West at last heralded the end of the oppression of Islam and the liberation for the Christians for whom the Crusades had been preached in the first place. Upon uncovering the site, Baldwin fell to his knees and paid homage to the holy ground. Even the Norman Tancred - not typically known for his piety - was moved enough to follow Baldwin's example. While the story is a mere detail in the chronicles of the First Crusade, to me it serves as perhaps one of the most touching scenes of humanity from the entire episode and a poignant reminder of the true nature of the noble enterprise of the Crusades. It also should remind us in the present day of the resilience of the beautiful memory of that sacred night when God joined his creations on earth to be welcomed by shepherds and herdsmen and hopefully remind us of those communities of Christian brethren who still endure the suffering of persecution and await for a day when they too will be rescued.
A merry Christmas to you all and Deus vult!
This story can be found in the Historia Hierosolymitana of Fulcher of Chartres and in The Building of Christendom by Dr. Warren Carroll.