Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bethlehem on Christmas Day

This will always be one of our most memorable Christmas celebrations.  It was very exciting to be in Bethlehem on Christmas Day, going to a church service in the church built on the site where Jesus was born, and celebrating with thousands of people representing probably more than 100 countries.

The trip to Bethlehem was interesting from the start.  We were fortunate to have stayed in a hotel in East Jerusalem which is Palestinian so the man in charge of the front desk was well-informed about a free shuttle service to Bethlehem organized by the Palestinian Tourism Authority.  He gave us a handout that listed all the details of where and when to get the shuttle.   It left from a monastery on the outskirts of Jerusalem so we first had to figure out how to get there.  The man from the hotel explained where to get a minibus going there, what number bus to get and how much it would cost (about $1-2 each).

We met a family of Mexican tourists who were also headed to Bethlehem.  We all got off at the monastery that was on a remote part of the highway.  There were buses there, but no sign of a shuttle to Jerusalem.  The staff at the monastery didn't know anything about a shuttle coming, but said other tourists had asked about a shuttle the day before.  We began to wonder if this was a well-intentioned plan that had never been carried out by the Tourist Authority.  We decided to wait and see.   As we waited, we visited the monastery (see earlier blog entry).  A few minutes after we got out of the monastery, a small bus pulled up.... the free shuttle to Bethlehem!  So away we went.

Since Bethlehem is in the Palestinian West Bank, we had to cross a checkpoint to cross from Israel to the West Bank.  This checkpoint was much less formal than crossing into Israel.  The bus driver just told the Palestinian guard we were tourists and a couple tourists were asked to hold up their passports to the window of the bus, then we were waived through.  We saw glimpses of the wall built by Israel in 2004 as a border between it and the Palestinian territories.  (I'll do a blog entry later with more details about this infamous wall.)

After the shuttle dropped us off in downtown Bethlehem, we walked for about a quarter mile to the Church of the Nativity, the site where Jesus was supposedly born.  Contrary to what many of us were taught, he was apparently not born in a stable, but rather in a cave.  I read that the innkeeper who had no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph let them stay in the cave underneath his hotel which he used as a stable for his animals.

We arrived at the Church of the Nativity, which is actually a couple different churches which are connected.  The Church of the Nativity is what is directly over the site where Jesus was supposedly born and the Church of St. Catherine is joined to that and is where we attended a church service on Christmas.

Outside the church, we came upon a couple thousand people, maybe more, singing or dancing or just enjoying the festive atmosphere as some musicians in the center of the group played Latin American Christmas Carols.

Drummers and guitar players playing a dancing rhythm.
Mexican brothers in our group watching the singing and dancing.
Some Africans in the middle enjoying the dancing circle
as it moved around to the right in time to the drum beat.
Cameron was dancing too for a while
and thrilled by the excitement. 
Our Mexican friend, Jorge, being interviewed by a reporter from  Associated Press.   

A little boy dressed for Christmas.

Here's a picture of the three of us before we went into the church.

Church of the Nativity. 

We entered the church by crawling through the Door of Humility.
The doorway into the Church of the Nativity is called the Door of Humility because it requires every person to bow down to enter the holy place.  It was made by the Ottomans by shortening the regular sized door that was created by the Crusaders.  The low doorway also served the function of helping to prevent theft since it's impossible to get a cart in to carry out church treasures.
The courtyard of the Church of St. Catherine.
The sanctuary of the Church of St. Catherine.
The high-vaulted ceiling was impressive.
The Church of St. Catherine was built in the 15th Century, supposedly on the site where Jesus appeared to St. Catherine of Alexandria and predicted she was would die a martyr, which she did.  

The church incorporated a portion of the 12th century Crusader monastery that was on that site.  There are also some remnants of a 5th century monastery on this site that was affiliated with a St. Jerome, a pastor who translated the Bible into Latin.
Christmas service with a lovely choir in the background that sang
carols for a half hour before the service began.
The Philipino minister delivering his sermon.
Here are some photos of the nativity art in the church.

The stained glass window at the front of the sanctuary.
The church service was interesting.  Communion was available for anyone who chose to participate.  The sermon was good and there was a particularly meaning part when the minister asked everyone to greet their neighbor, then lead everyone in a song.  I don't remember if the minister asked people to join hands or if it was spontaneous, but everyone, thousands of us, started holding hands, even across the aisles, so that the whole church, all nationalities, seemed connected.  It was poingnant.  
After the service, we went down to the grotto in the Church of the Nativity, the site where Jesus was supposedly born.   
Prayer candles on the way to the grotto.
Here's a room you pass through on the way to the grotto.  You can see how ancient this church is.  The first church on this site was built in the year 326, but that was destroyed a couple centuries later then another church built there in 530 AD.   But part of the mosaic floor was preserved.  Here's a photo of Cameron peeking down at that floor from 326.  
The Persians invaded in 614 but didn't destroy the church on this site because they supposedly like artwork in the church showing the three wise men (maji) who were Persian.   In the year 1009, the church could have been destroyed by Muslims because of a decree that called for destruction of all Christian monuments, but the church was not destroyed then either because part of the church had been used by Muslims for worship since the year 639.  

These churches, and this whole region, is so jam-packed with history that it's hard to keep track of it all sometimes.  I only discovered researching for this blog that the Church of the Nativity also houses the Chapel of Innocents which has the tomb of babies who were killed by Herod the Great.  It also has a Chapel dedicated to Joseph, Mary's husband.

Here's a floor plan of the Church of Nativity and a link to a website with more information:

Church of the Nativity, on the way to the grotto.
Here's the line to get go down into the grotto where Jesus was born.
Entering the grotto.
I had heard from our friend who went to the grotto before us that the monks kept the line moving so quickly that it wasn't possible to take a picture of the site where Jesus was born when you went by.  Knowing this, I had my camera all ready to click when I got within a couple meters of the site.  When the monks rushed me by, I was able to do a quick click and was lucky to get a good shot.  I was entertained by something the monk said in the middle of his montra to keep the line of going:   'keep moving please, keep moving please, Nice shot, Keep moving please."  Somehow he was able to see me click the camera AND see the picture come out before I passed by in the those two seconds.
The site where Jesus was supposedly born.

Here are a couple photos of rooms after leaving the grotto.  

Below is our group of Mexican friends (on the right) with their Korean friend (next to Cameron) and another friend we met (dual citizen Greece and I think South Africa).  This photo was taken right after we left the church service.  We had a wonderful Christmas day together.

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