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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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Brother Juniper: "Would to God, my brothers, I had a whole forest of such Junipers," said Francis of this holy friar. 
<p>We don’t know much about Juniper before he joined the friars in 1210. Francis sent him to establish "places" for the friars in Gualdo Tadino and Viterbo. When St. Clare was dying, Juniper consoled her. He was devoted to the passion of Jesus and was known for his simplicity. </p><p>Several stories about Juniper in the <i>Little Flowers of St. Francis</i> illustrate his exasperating generosity. Once Juniper was taking care of a sick man who had a craving to eat pig’s feet. This helpful friar went to a nearby field, captured a pig and cut off one foot, and then served this meal to the sick man. The owner of the pig was furious and immediately went to Juniper’s superior. When Juniper saw his mistake, he apologized profusely. He also ended up talking this angry man into donating the rest of the pig to the friars! </p><p>Another time Juniper had been commanded to quit giving part of his clothing to the half-naked people he met on the road. Desiring to obey his superior, Juniper once told a man in need that he couldn’t give the man his tunic, but he wouldn’t prevent the man from taking it either. In time, the friars learned not to leave anything lying around, for Juniper would probably give it away. </p><p>He died in 1258 and is buried at Ara Coeli Church in Rome.</p> American Catholic Blog Is God in control of your life, or are you? Does He have your permission to take you where He wants to, or are you the control freak who wants Him in the car but won’t let Him steer?

 
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