Friday, August 10, 2012

Visiting Bethlehem

Today we left at 6:30 am to go to Bethlehem.  Our tour guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, had arranged a truly once in a lifetime experience for us to attend mass in the chapel at the spot where Jesus was born. 

While only four miles from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is part of the West Bank and is now surrounded by a security wall/fence.  Many of the Palestinian Christians and Muslims who live there are not able to move freely in and out of the city without a permit.  On the way into Bethlehem, we were directed to go around the city to a different checkpoint, since the one on the main road was busy with travelers going to Jerusalem for Ramadan.  (This year, everyone over 45 years old was allowed to go without a permit, but younger people had to obtain one.)  A recent Israeli settlement was also a significant part of the landscape.  The settlements are a huge sticking point in the peace process. 

The Church of the Nativity, at the place of Jesus' birth, is an amalgamation of buildings ancient and modern.  The first church on the site was built by Queen Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, in 326 and is considered the oldest church in Christendom.  The majority of the current church on the site was built during Crusader times.  During an earthquake in recent decades, they did engineering work to see if the large church columns were still architecturally sound.  During that work, they found tile flooring and some mosaics from the original church.  The main church is used by the Orthodox.  A Roman Catholic church, built in the 1800's, connects to the Church of the Nativity.  The two sanctuaries provide an interesting contrast of styles.  The Catholic church is newer, lighter in color, much brighter, and includes hangings and artwork dating to the past decade.  The thousand-year old Orthodox Church of the Nativity is darker, with most of the old icons, paintings, columns and hangings covered in the residue of centuries of candles and incense smoke.  The lovely scent of incense lingers in the Orthodox church.

Jerome's Chapel (photo by Greene)
Altar at the site of Jesus' birth (Greene photo)
When we arrived, after seeing the main sanctuaries, we visited a number of small chapels below the Catholic church.  At one we read Luke's nativity account and sang Joy to the World.  Another was in the room where St. Jerome worked on his translation of the Vulgate.  He went to Palestine from Rome to learn Hebrew so his translation would be scholarly and based on the original languages and not just a translation of a Greek translation.  His Vulgate was the Bible used by the Western Church for well over a millennium.  Another chapel underneath the tomb was dedicated to the Holy Innocents.  It was where a tomb with numerous bones of babies had been found, presumably those killed by Herod after the magi's visit.

Small manger chapel (Greene photo)
The highpoint was when we descended to the two small chapels underneath the area adjoining the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.  At the bottom of the stairs was an altar with a star underneath it marking the place of Jesus' birth.   A few feet away was an altar standing at the place where Jesus was laid in a manger.  The Franciscans allowed us to attend their daily mass at the chapel in the manger at 8:30.  Everyday the Greek Orthodox say mass at 7:30 at the altar above the birthplace of Jesus.  At 8:30, the Roman Catholic Franciscans use the manger altar.  Then at 9:30 the Armenian Christians use the birthplace altar for their mass.  At 10:30, the area is opened up for visitors.  Seeing we spoke English, the priest said the service in English for us, and allowed a number of us to do the readings. Being able to read the Christmas scriptures at the place of Jesus birth was incredibly moving.  We stood for the entire service, in this small underground area that might have held less than 100 people standing, with oil candles hanging from the ceiling. 

Sheep in the hills outside of Bethlehem (Greene photo)
After the Eucharist, we drove to the the Shepherd's field.  This area was where the shepherds watching their flocks by night were visited by angels proclaiming the good news.  In addition to a small chapel where we sang silent night together, the site had an excavation of first century caves.  We walked into the kind of cave where those shepherds in the hills surrounding Bethlehem would have stayed with their flocks when not in the fields.  In the surrounding hills, we could see a shepherd grazing his sheep.

After a full morning of the living into the Nativity of Jesus in a new way, we visited a Palestinian Christian cooperative of local artisans that worked with with olive wood, gold, mother-of-pearl and other materials.  Then we had a good meal at a Bethlehem restaurant.  Of course, the pita was good at Bethlehem (which means literally "house of bread"), as were the falafels and the rest of the meal.


  1. Many thanks for these, Adam. Really fun to be on the "virtual tour" with you . . . .

  2. Thanks, Bruce. Glad you are enjoying them!