Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Jerusalem and Bethlehem

For several days before we arrived in Jerusalem, I heard the old anthem "The Holy City" in my mind time and time again. That anthem was the traditional Palm Sunday anthem of our previous church and I have to confess that sometimes I found it a bit maudlin and over the top. But as we came through a tunnel to our first glimpse of Jerusalem the bus driver played "The Holy City" on the loudspeaker and his timing was just perfect!

I prefer hearing a soloist and choir sing it:

Jerusalem is more hilly than I imagined. We were thrilled to find ourselves there, at last. But geopolitical realities intruded almost immediately as we had to drop off our Jewish Israeli guide before entering Bethlehem. Although he has guided groups for years through the sites there now that the Palestinian Authority is in control of that town he is not allowed to enter because he is Jewish.

We drove through the checkpoints, past young soldiers waving guns, and into Bethlehem. "How still we see thee lie" indeed. Our guide in Bethleham was a young Christian Israeli whose family one of the few living in the area.

Our first stop was Shepherd's Field, where tradition says that the angels appeared to the shepherds (Luke 2:8). Of course there is a church there, but unfortunately I failed to get a photo of it. The area is like a garden and high on the top of the hill. 

Then we went to the Church of the Nativity. As we walked around the courtyard outside of the church Dave pointed out the bullet holes on the facade and asked our guide to explain them. Our guide was reluctant to say much about it--it was obvious that he felt uncomfortable talking about it. (In 2002, the Israeli Defense Forces were trying to round up some Palestinian militants who took refuge in the Church of the Nativity. After a tense 39 days, some gunfire and resulting casualties, an agreement was reached where the militants surrendered to the IDF in exchange for deportation to Gaza and Europe.)

I was sympathetic to the guide whose position as a Christian in an area controlled by the PA is very difficult. I believe he was concerned that "the walls have ears."

The Church of the Nativity is built over a cave where tradition says that Jesus was born. Inside are three chapels, one for the Greek Orthodox, one for the Armenian Orthodox and one for the Roman Catholics. Both of the Orthodox chapels are quite ornate. Here is a photo of one, and I failed to note which one:

And here is a photo of the cave where Jesus' manger reportedly lay:

The Church of the Beatitudes and the Church of St. Peter Primus that we had seen in Galilee had not prepared us for all the gold, silver, ornate statuary and tapestries that we saw in this church. We would see even more ornate churches in Jerusalem.


Joan Calvin said...

My experience of Bethlehem was totally different. I walked there from my guest house in Jerusalem, through the check points. I talked for a long time with Christian women who were not shy about talking about their situation.

You might ask about the Palestinians who are prohibited from visiting their families in Israel because they are Palestinian, not Muslim but Christian.

Quotidian Grace said...

I'm sure experiences differ depending on the context of your visit and when it occured. I don't pretend that this tour exposed our group to all sides of the difficult and divisive issues in Israel right now.

recovering baptist said...

Sadly Joan is right. I had a room mate from Bethlehem, she was a Palestinian Christian. Her family had owned land there for eons.. who knows they could be descended from the early Christians.. she was nursing in London at the time Israel occupied the land that was Jordanian. She and her siblings were never allowed to return and see their elderly parents. Eventually the only country that extended a welcome to them, was Libya. I often wonder is she had any children and if they became terrorists.. sadly I couldn't blame them.

Anonymous said...

Oddly, I encountered both reactions - Christians who were very vocal and those who were very slow to speak. As I remember, the Church of the Nativity incident was one that I never did get a clear account of. It seemed the Christians I spoke to were leary of that issue for some reason.

I also found opinions very varried.

Will Spotts