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Friday, May 1, 2015

Bethlehem and Jerusalem

The last two days have been spent in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It's a bit hard to ingest the reality of being here. Some of that is due to the reality that modernity has overtaken the significant places of the Christian faith and some of it is simply due to just trying to wrap one's mind around the reality of walking in this holy place. Our first stop was Manger Square, the traditional place believed to be where Jesus was born. Of course, it resembles in no way at all the idyllic nativity scenes that we decorate our homes with at Christmas. The Church of the Nativity is built over the cave-like place where Christ would've been born. You are ushered into a line and moved along rapidly, scarcely having time to consider the incarnation that unfolded here over 2,000 years ago. And yet, we stood in the line, cameras ready, happy to experience this modern day acknowledgment that a place exists that is dedicated to the birth of Christ.

 From there we went to Shepherds' Cave and Fields. While still surrounded by modern elements, the close proximity to the hills of Bethlehem along with the gorgeous gardens and grounds that surrounded us, the experience of the shepherds was much more believable to me. Archeological digs have revealed caves where sheep would've been tended to. Now that I live in the desert, the dark night sky where the stars shine so brightly allows me to picture with greater clarity the fear the shepherds' must've felt when the multitude showed up to lead them to the cave where the Messiah had been born. The caves that were at this site seemed so much more authentic so I was able to at least imagine what Christ's birthplace might've actually looked like.
The church that is now a part of Shepherds' field is beautiful and thoughtfully designed. The dome is intended to reflect the sentiment of the night the savior was born: Glory to God in the highest. The views of the surrounding hillsides contributed to a sense of vastness. And I loved the statue that paid homage to the lowly shepherd...society's most unappreciated members.
After a night of sleep that I badly needed, I was ready for yet another day filled with dazzling experiences.
We spent the morning hearing about a reconciliation ministry run by Palestinian Christians. I will dedicate another blog to all that we encountered through this remarkable man and ministry. It set a great tone for visiting the wall that separates Israel from Palestine, a great symbol of oppression and discrimination. From there we arrived high atop Jerusalem, getting a fantastic panoramic view of this significant city. From a distance, we saw the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives which we will visit tomorrow. We got a sense of the roads Jesus walked and learned about the days where he was put on trial and beaten while awaiting his crucifixion. The house of the high priest Caiphas was a very moving experience. Magnificent artwork along with a very tasteful and beautiful church dominate the site. Well beneath the ground we stood in a pit that might very well have been the pit where Jesus was beaten and held on his last night of life. We read Psalm 88 and sang Were You There When They Crucified My Lord. Very meaningful to pause and ponder the pain and agony that Christ endured on the way to the cross. We shared a special time of devotion in an outdoor garden, looking out at Jerusalem. Christ's death has meant the ultimate tearing down of walls that divide people and yet, in this very place where his death took place, a wall is being built to keep people apart. The Israel/Palestine narrative is a sad one indeed and while difficult to hold onto hope, the places of Christ's ministry, death and resurrection that permeate the walls gives us reason to continue to hope.

We are now back at our hotel in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. We moved fairly freely through the checkpoints several times today. Only once did soldiers get on and simply walk through our bus. The weather is beautiful, the mood is light and good, and yet, here we are, in the midst of an area where much violence, misunderstanding, and oppression of other humans takes place all the time. I suppose at times, I understand more fully why Jesus stood over Jerusalem and wept for his people. May the reconciling power of Christ's ministry continue to find a way to influence the conflict that seems so insurmountable at times.