Tuesday, June 27, Bethlehem and Ein Kerem
”O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.”
Everyone knows that song! But imagine what it is like to drive thought this ancient land looking down on terraced hillsides and seeing caves in the mountainsides. As you wind through the narrow Palestinian streets you see your fellow Christians mingling with the Muslims, walking along the road with their children – shopping, working, and trying to survive.
Then you get off the bus, walk up the road, push your way through rude vendors to finally see . . .
. . . the oldest church in the world, and the smallest church door in the world. You’d think this door was crafted especially for dwarfs. It is pocked with bullet dings and not more than 4 feet high. It is appropriate though that you bow as you enter the Church of the Nativity. The door was reduced in size to keep Muslims from riding their horses and camels into the incredibly holy place.
It cooled down a bit but not much. Jerusalem and Bethlehem rise high above the Jordan Valley to the east and the plain to the west that runs down to the Mediterranean. So Jerusalem and Bethlehem are always a bit cooler – or should I say “less hot” – than other areas in Israel.
Before breakfast, many pilgrims entered the Old City and prayed or attended Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, only ten minutes from our hotel, the Notre Dame Center. That is why I always bring pilgrims here — it is so close to the most holy place in the world.
We drove through it today. Through what? I will tell you. There is a lot of talk about the wall that Israel is building as a protection against terrorist bombers infiltrating into Israel. Nothing can stir the passions and start arguments here more than mention of that wall. There are many opinions and I feel sorry for the innocent Palestinians inconvenienced and humiliated by the wall, but I can't help but think the wall was really built by Arafat and his policy of suicide bombers. The innocent Palestinians and especially the Christians suffer because of the radical Muslims who want to use bombs and terror as a means of retaliation. This wall would have been extremely difficult to build — especially because of world opinion — if the bombs had not become a way of life. Anyway, we drove through the wall as we left Israel proper and entered the West Bank to visit Bethlehem.
Is it safe here, especially in Bethlehem? Almost everyone admitted that family and friends told them they were crazy for coming here – “You’ll get blown up!” – but all of them would chuckle at such silliness now that they have traversed Israel and the West Bank from the north to the bustling city of Jerusalem. No one has at any time felt threatened or uneasy. The people in Bethlehem and gentle and kind people and I always hate to say good-bye.
In all the Holy Land there is no where quite like Bethlehem with is caves, terraced mountainside growing olives and grapes and much more. Sheep and shepherds, Muslims and Christians, churches and mosques.
We started the day at the Nissan Store because our local guide wanted to change the schedule a bit and introduce us all to the largest olive wood factory in Bethlehem. Everyone was able to buy quality products and many bought Christmas presents, gifts for their priests and families and to help support the local Christians. We always take our groups to ethical and legitimate shops since there are a lot of scams and cheap products being pushed as the real thing.
We all went in the caves of Shepherds Field where the angels announced the birth of the savior to the shepherds watching their flocks in these caves. Why did the angels announce his birth first to the shepherds? Because Jesus is the Lamb of God and shepherds are always first to hear about the birth of a lamb.
The Church of the Nativity – the oldest church in the world – was our next stop and everyone seemed moved after we dodged all the hawkers and vendors and then stooped low to enter the small door. It was reduced in size to keep Muslims from riding their horses and camels into the church long ago. We each prayed and touched the actual place in the grotto (cave) beneath the church. Very moving!
We then visited St. Catherine’s Church adjacent to the grotto and visited the place where the angel met Joseph to warn him in a dream and then the first tomb of St. Jerome. By the way, Bethlehem is where he translated the Hebrew Bible into the Latin Vulgate. We had a great lunch inside Bethlehem before avoiding the main checkpoint and exiting the city through Beit Jala.
Next we visited Ein Kerem, the birthplace of John the Baptist and the home of Elizabeth. Remember the 2nd Joyful Mystery of the Rosary? Yes, this is where Mary walked (all the way from Nazareth!!!) to visit her relative.
We had a very special treat after dinner. A friend of mine and a singer and fisherman from the Sea of Galilee agreed to meet us in the Notre Dame to put on a concert for us. He is a Messianic Jew, meaning he is Jewish by birth and has accepted Jesus as his Messiah. He is not Catholic. Messianic Jews are basically Evangelical Protestants who want to practice their faith within their Jewish identity. He has a beautiful voice and sang many worship songs in English and Hebrew and got most of us to sing along and learn a few new words in Hebrew.
I think some took off to explore the Old City a little more, but must of us crashed into bed. Again . . .
. . . zzzzzzzzzzzzzz