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Wood Carvers of Bethlehem View Comments
By Lori Erickson

Elia Sway, a Palestinian Christian, carries on his family’s tradition of creating olive-wood carvings. Sway learned the art from his grandfather.
SINCE THE EARLY 1940s, members of the Sway family of Bethlehem have been carrying on a tradition with deep spiritual roots. Here in the town where Jesus was born, olive-wood carvings have long been crafted both as a biblical teaching tool and as a source of income in an economically distressed part of the world.

Using wood pruned from local olive trees, over the decades the Sway family has skillfully carved a wide range of figures: kindly Josephs, beatific Marys, regal camels, humble shepherds, and tiny infants that represent the humbling of God into human form.

“We tell the Nativity story in a way everyone can understand,” says Elia Sway, a Palestinian Christian who learned his skills from his grandfather. He now works with his son Iyad in a workshop attached to their home, a short distance from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

While Christians around the world set up small crèches in their homes each Christmas, carved figures from Bethlehem carry a special resonance and meaning. In addition to being made in one of the holiest sites in Christianity, olive-wood carvings from the Holy Land have other symbolic associations.

The Bible is full of references to olive trees, from Jesus praying under an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane to Noah receiving an olive branch from a dove as a sign the great flood had receded.

Olive-wood carving has been an honored craft in Bethlehem for many centuries. Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, visited the Holy Land in the fourth century and directed that churches be built on the major sites associated with Jesus’ life.

In Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity was constructed over the grotto that local tradition associated with the birth of Jesus. Monks came to live in the area and taught local craftsmen how to make figures that could be used to teach the biblical story. In doing so, of course, the artisans followed the example of Jesus, who also knew his way around a woodshop.

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Lori Erickson is a freelance travel writer with a love for writing about spiritual sites around the world.

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Joseph Benedict Cottolengo: In some ways Joseph exemplified St. Francis’ advice, "Let us begin to serve the Lord God, for up to now we have made little or no progress" (<i>1 Celano, </i>#103). 
<p>Joseph was the eldest of 12 children. Born in Piedmont, he was ordained for the Diocese of Turin in 1811. Frail health and difficulty in school were obstacles he overcame to reach ordination. </p><p>During Joseph’s lifetime Italy was torn by civil war while the poor and the sick suffered from neglect. Inspired by reading the life of St. Vincent de Paul and moved by the human suffering all around him, Joseph rented some rooms to nurse the sick of his parish and recruited local young women to serve as staff. </p><p>In 1832 at Voldocco, Joseph founded the House of Providence which served many different groups (the sick, the elderly, students, the mentally ill, the blind). All of this was financed by contributions. Popularly called "the University of Charity," this testimonial to God’s goodness was serving 8,000 people by the time of Joseph’s beatification in 1917. </p><p>To carry on his work, Joseph organized two religious communities, the Brothers of St. Vincent de Paul and the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul. Joseph, who had joined the Secular Franciscans as a young man, was canonized in 1934.</p> American Catholic Blog The image of God! This is what it means to be human! We are not just a bunch of cells randomly thrown together by some impersonal forces. Rather, we reflect an eternal God who knew us from before we were made and purposely called us into being.

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