On the way to Bethlehem #HolyLand Day 4

The Walls of Old Jerusalem, near the Damascus Gate

It was a beautiful day, and layers were shed as we made our way round the corner from our hotel to the Garden Tomb. This “alternative” location for Jesus’ tomb and resurrection was suggested in the nineteenth century by a keen Brit, who did some excavating and found a first century tomb. I didn’t think the link with Jesus was even remotely compelling, but the archeology was interesting, and it was an excellent chance to see how a first century tomb looked. The garden itself was beautiful – think “Victorican/Edwardian botanical garden in the Mediterranean” and you’ve got it. They put in little grottos and bridges and walkways. “Very charming, and a lovely oasis of calm close to the Old City” is my assessment. I didn’t take photos though….

To get to Bethlemhem, it is necessary to cross from Israel to Palestine. Notices like this become more common. I know that I don’t understand the political situation as well as I should (and I have reading to help remedy that). OWG did his best to explain….

We arrived at the Shepherds Fields in beautiful hot sunshine. I couldn’t believe that I was in a t-shirt in January. It wasn’t terribly field like because of all the paving, but it was another beautiful garden. We celebrated Holy Communion in a little grotto, and sang Christmas carols, which was rather moving. I was so grateful to be part of a group with fabulous singers, it enriched our worship so much.

A lugubrious sheep – what’s not to like?

It might be worth noting that LTL was (or rather is) male. This meant that we could celebrate communion in all sorts of places. Female priests get to celebrate “next door” to many of the major sites. “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.” Or not.

The church itself was beautiful, but I enjoyed sitting in the sunshine, basking gently in the warmth, and taking a moment to be, rather than to rush. The garden was beautifully kept, and as someone who is ignorant about plants but loves to see them, I was very happy indeed. The Shepherds Field has stayed with me as a place of calm and quiet – although it was possibly anything but for the original shepherds.

Our next stop (“Ready? Let’s go!) was the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation. This place serves people who can’t cross the border into Jerusalem to get to the major hospitals. As well as offering rehabilitation, it has evolved into a hsopital to meet many of the medical needs of the area. It is funded largely by donations, and was a place of warmth and welcome. There is not often such a clear link between a hospital and hospitality as we found here. We learned a little of the reality of life in Palestine, especially for the poor. Something I particularly liked was that we told about the work, clearly and factually, but there was no “display” of patients put on for us. Dignity was important to the staff here.

There is nothing little or still about Bethlehem, but I didn’t mind because in my head it is packed out and bustling and there is no room for anyone. Expectation plays a huge part in pilgrimage!

The Church of the Nativity has a tiny door, which you have to bend down to get through. I emerged into a beautiful airy nave which smelt of incense so strongly that it was like perfume. There were decorated pillars, mosaics, and roof timbers gifted by King Edward IV who was king of England towards the end of the Wars of the Roses and died in 1483.

Naturally there was a queue, but it gave time to enjoy the space, and to watch the priests cense the church during the service. One of the oddities of the city and town spaces was going through the churches as the residents worshiped. It made me feel more of a tourist than a pilgrim, but we didn’t have time to stop and join in. As Protestants, we probably wouldn’t have been terribly welcome.

The wall decoration was beautiful and I did like the plain aspect of the nave. But this is disputed territory, with Armenian, Orthodox and Roman Catholics all operating here.

The plainness of the nave is only made more obvious by the screen and sanctuary. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so much ecclesiastical bling in one place. But somehow, the over the top decoration just underlines how much people care about this place. It’s the oldest continuous site of Christian worship, and the weight of devotions was palpable.

The undercroft contains a chapel with a silver star marking “the spot” of the Birth. When we first went down it was full to bursting, and as various groups left, I managed a few moments of being nearly on my own there.

The painting above “the spot” where Jesus was born
More nave decoration

One of our group commented that the Church didn’t feel holy, it felt chaotic and noisy. I’m not sure I’d agree. It felt joyful to me, and birth is seldom a silent peaceful process, even though it is holy.

However, part of the complex in the Church is the cave of St Jerome, who found himself a cave, took up residence, and translated the whole Bible into Latin from the original Hebrew and Greek. The courtyard which led to it, and the rooms he occupied, were relatively plain, and peaceful, and prayer filled.

The chapel of St Jerome

Leaving the church, we headed into Manger Square. I hadn’t expected Christmas trees in the Holy Land, and I really didn’t expect this one.

See? I’ll bet you didn’t either. It looks like something straight out of an M&S or John Lewis advert. This is not just any Christmas Tree….it’s a Manger Square, Bethlehem Christmas Tree!

It was huge – the figures in the Nativity were full sized, just to give a sense of scale.

As we tried to return to Jerusalem, our coach had to turn round. A checkpoint was closed, so we had to go a longer way round. It was a mild one-off inconvenience for our group, but for thousands of people this is a way of life.

The wall cuts straight through Bethlehem. It is decorated and graffitied, but neither paint, nor a gorgeous sky, can diminish its impact. It has reduced the number of suicide bombers, but the way it divides people and land is a horrible testimony to people’s capacity to hate the Other.

I liked Bethlehem. It isn’t a little village, it’s a big bustling town, but my cold was diminishing, the sun shone, and there was open landscape nearby. I started to feel better here.

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