We began our trip today with a visit to the Herodyan, which was a fort and palace built by Herod the great. Herod is best remembered as the "King of the Jews" who was in power when Jesus was born. In fact, it was he who ordered the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. You can sense the deep fear with which he lived in the size and location of this fortress (and he built or restored 14 all around the ancient Middle East).
While there, we were asked to reflect on two kingdoms: Herod's kingdom of political power and Jesus' calling us to bring about God's kingdom here on earth. Our course leader asked us to reflect on which kingdom or kingdoms have survived? And, particularly in the Holy Land, where there is still such struggle, how does the tension between those two kingdoms play out today?
Next, we went to the Shepherds' Fields, which marks the place where the shepherds kept their flocks and where they would have heard the message of Christ's birth from the heavenly host. Despite the crowds, it still felt peaceful there. It was also bucketing down rain for much of the time.
In a small cave, like the ones the shepherds resided in, Bishop Shannon Johnston, of the Diocese of Virginia, celebrated eucharist with us. It was totally surreal, as we used the propers for the Feast of the Nativity, and sang Christmas Carols, despite being in the midst of Lent. In his sermon, Bishop Shannon asked us to reflect some on what that dichotomy might mean. The point of our Lenten disciplines is to bring us closer to God, and that closeness (in the incarnation) is what we celebrate at Christmas.
We also got a chance to shop at a cooperative store that supports 30+ Christian families in Bethlehem. We were encouraged to "support the local economy" here, since this store helps the Christians who have chosen to remain in Bethlehem and whose numbers are declining because of the political issues there (that's a whole other blog post!). I bought a number of things - to keep and to share.
For lunch, we ate at a traditional Middle Eastern Restaurant, where we were given a huge variety of dishes to try. I'm not sure WHAT I ate, but I will say that it was all delicious. I think I've eaten my weight in hummous.
We ended our tour of Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity, a church built over the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born. This view from Nativity Square, gives you a sense of the diversity of Bethlehem and the West Bank. Turning away from that church, you can see both a mosque and another Christian church close by (look closely at the two towers in the photo).
To enter the church of the Nativity you go through a very small door, called the Door of Humility. Even I had to bend to enter. You can see in this photo how many times the size of the door has been reduced (and the men by the door give you a sense of perspective).
You might imagine that the Church of the Nativity would be a quiet place. Rather, it was mayhem. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pilgrims were queued up for the chance to kneel briefly at the place where Jesus was born, and then to peer into the manger. At the same time, as we waited, a funeral service was happening in the nave of the church. Listening to the mother's lament for her dead child was chilling, in light of the story of the one whose birthplace we had come to see.
So we queued and waited, finally coming to the place where Jesus was born. Here is one of my fellow pilgrims, kneeling at the spot.
As I waited, and walked, and waited and walked, I found myself feeling very skeptical. Most of the holy sites in the Holy Land were not identified for hundreds of years. So, was this really (really???) the spot where Jesus born? How likely was it?
And then, at the moment when I knelt down, and put my head into the cave (that's another blog post, too!), I was moved to tears by the experience of touching this place. In the end, I realized that it didn't matter to me if Jesus was born right there, or 100 feet away, or around the block. The sacredness of that site comes from the combination of the possibility and the centuries of faithful people coming there as an act of devotion. Places become "thin" because God breaks through there. And this little spot, for all its hustle and crowd, was thin for me. I experienced the incarnation there.