Dear fellow pilgrims along the way, thank you for allowing me to share with you a reflection on the Separation Wall. It was such a moving experience that I felt compelled to share with you all. This then means I am now a day behind, but I will share with you the rest of our adventures in Bethlehem because there is definitely more there than just a wall…like the place Jesus was born!
We had another early start top the day and I am suspecting that this might be a recurring theme with Iyad leading our pilgrimage. After a quick breakfast we boarded the bus for the drive south towards Bethlehem. The theme for today is centered on the Nativity, so we made our way to our first stop for the day in the town of Beit Sahour, or the House of the Magi, which was given its name by the Persians who occupied the town at one point in its long history. Now I am sure most of you are scratching your head and saying, “Fr. Rob, there is no mention of Beit Sahour in the Bible” and you would be correct. However, Beit Sahour is a very important site for Christians because it is where tradition says the angel Gabriel visited the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus.
According to tradition, St. Helena built a convent at the site, which is today known as the shepherd’s cave and the Franciscans acquired a shrine there in 1347. We visited the site that is operated by the Franciscans. There are actually to other sites in Beit Shour that also claim to be where the angel appeared to the shepherds; the other two being one operated by the Greek Orthodox and the other located at a YMCA which is visited mostly by Protestant denominations. Last time I was on pilgrimage I went to the one at the YMCA, so this was a new site for me. They are similar in that they have caves, but the Franciscans have a chapel, so we went there.
We arrived pretty early so the site was still relatively quiet and empty. We came upon one group of Catholic pilgrims celebrating morning Mass near one of the cave, but other than that we were the only ones…for now. Clearly Iyad wanted us to get there early so we could go down into the cave before it became crowded with other groups of pilgrims. So, we went down into one of the larger caves and Iyad showed us around, giving us an idea of where the animals would stay, where the “kitchen” might be (and I use that term very loosely), and where the family would sleep. They did not have a lot of space so it was quite tight in there if we imagine the animals and the family being in there together. After hearing the scripture story about the angel we then sang “Angels We Have Heard on High” in the depths of the cave. You can check out some pictures and the video below.
After a rousing rendition of the popular Christmas carol, we were free to explore the chapel and the grounds where there is ongoing excavation in and around the caves. As I came out of the cave I was met by another large pilgrim group singing their hearts out. The priest was quite animated as he led with his guitar. I could not discern the language so I have no idea where they are from, but they were into it and it was awesome to see the group connecting to this site in a deep way. Here is a video of that group.
After taking in the holy site, we boarded the bus to visit the Separation Wall that I discussed in my last post. After the powerful experience at the wall we went to visit another of Iyad’s “cousins” who operates a large shop in Bethlehem. Though Iyad knows the family well, I actually think they are closer to our bus driver Omar who, even as a Muslim, was helping us get good deals on various Christian gifts like icons and olive wood statues, and of course jewelry. I think Omar was happy that we stopped there and the group spent quite a bit, which is good because the money is supporting a Palestinian family rather than one of the big monastic communities who run gift shops at other sites. Nothing against monastics, just they get funds from other means as well, like donations, entry fees, and their own private patrons, so it was nice to support a large Palestinian family.
After a bit of shopping, we then went to lunch at Ruth’s restaurant; not far from the shop. Ruth is one of the owners of the restaurant, along with her husband, and they are a Christian family. We once again experienced amazing hospitality and were fed with excellent salads and meats! Once we were full, it was time to head to the Church of the Nativity.
Iyad took us to the caves at the Shepherd’s Field first because he wanted us to get an idea of what the birthplace of Jesus would have looked like. So, if you have in mind that Jesus was born in a barn behind an inn and laid in a wooden manger, it is a wonderful scene for which we can thank Saint Francis as the first person to create a crèche scene, but it may not be the most accurate depiction of Jesus’ birth. And so we traveled to Manger Square and got in line to see the church. We avoided the church in the morning because that is when a lot of groups come to visit, so Iyad took us in the afternoon when it would be a little calmer.
The church was originally commissioned in 327 by Constantine the Great and his mother Helena It was destroyed by fire during the Samaritan revolts of the 6th century, and a new basilica was built in 565 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, which restored the architectural tone of the original.The Church of the Nativity, while remaining basically unchanged since the Justinian reconstruction, has seen numerous repairs and additions, especially from the Crusader period, such as two bell towers (now gone), wall mosaics and paintings (partially preserved). Over the centuries, the surrounding compound has been expanded, and today it comprises three different monasteries: one Greek Orthodox, one Armenian Apostolic, and one Roman Catholic
After stooping to enter the church through the ridiculously small front door, we were met with a crowded church. There were many different pilgrim groups there to see the site, and quite a few Russian groups. This church in particular is an important church to Russian pilgrims because it was the Tsarist governments who helped fund and decorate the Greek and Armenian side of the church. We stood in line for nearly an hour, just like Disneyland, as we all slowly made our way to what is perhaps the second most holy site in the Christian tradition. As we got closer the group become tighter as people behind pressed to get closer to the entrance. There was a palpable sense of urgency, as if somehow it might disappear before we got our chance to see, touch, and pray at the site. I admit, I felt it too in my heart, a sense of drawing closer to something very holy.
So we made our way down large steps that are very slippery because they have been worn down by the millions of pilgrims who have visited this site since it was built. Each pilgrim had a chance to see and pray at the star that marks the place where Jesus was born and also at the manger where he was laid. It is a crazy, hot, and an altogether different experience, but well worth the visit.
After taking it all in and having some more time for pictures we headed back towards Manger Square and made our way back to the coach. We then boarded the bus to head back to Saint George’s. It had been an intense day with the Shepherd’s Field, the Separation Wall, and the Church of the Nativity. Needless to say I came back to my room and took a nap before blogging. I have been to these places before, and yet each time there is something different hat draws me in. This time it was getting to share this with some many who had not been there before. It was awesome to be a part of their experience of Jesus’ birth.
Tomorrow, or really today, we leave Jerusalem for a while and head north to Galilee. So until then, be good or be good at it!