Thursday, July 8, 2015
Hooray, I slept through the night! Guess I’ve adjusted to the time change. Rise and shine, breakfast at 7:00, lecture at 8:00, class photo at 9:00, bus departed at 9:15 for the seven mile drive west of Jerusalem to the ancient village of Ein Kerem where we focused on the beginning of Jesus’s life and the environment at that time. Tradition tells us that Ein Kerem to be the town where Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) and Zechariah lived. In her first trimester, Mary visited Elizabeth (who was six months pregnant) and stayed for three months. Here we went to see the Church of the Visitation. This is the site where, according to tradition, Elizabeth gave a song of praise, known to us now as the Magnificat. The church sits on a hilltop and the walls around the church are beautifully adorned with tiled representations of that canticle in many different languages. It also has a bronze statue of Mary and Elizabeth talking to each other, provoking me to wonder what that must have been like: for an older woman (who couldn’t bear children) to suddenly be with child and a very young woman who was just recently married and also with child to be together. Oh to have been a fly on the wall; during those three months!
As a group, we recited the Magnificat before entering the lower level to see the murals depicting the Visitation, Zechariah praying in the Temple and the angel hiding baby John from the massacre of the children. We then proceeded to the upper level where a mass was underway; many of us stayed for several minutes listening to the Eucharistic prayer being said in what sounded like Russian or some other Slavic language. We were really enjoying the ritual and the beautiful mosaic floors. We descended the long steep hillside, only to go up the adjoining incline on our way to the Church of St. John the Baptist. It was built during the second half of the 19th century on the remnants of earlier Byzantine and Crusader churches. Inside are the remains of an ancient mosaic floor and a cave where, according to Christian tradition, John the Baptist was born.
From Ein Kerem, we drove east to Jerusalem, then south six miles to Bethlehem. This takes us into the West Bank, meaning we had to go through a checkpoint. Fortunately, we did not have to leave the bus or show our passports. But, it is intimidating, looking out the window at this process watching young men and women carrying AK47s! In fact, Clark McSparren said that in Jerusalem the day before he’d seen a young woman in military uniform sitting at a sidewalk bench with her AK47 across her lap. Upon leaving the checkpoint, we proceeded through the winding hilly streets of Bethlehem to the Tent Restaurant, named such because it has tarps covering the dining area instead of a roof. It reminded me of Sausalito, California where I lived during the late 1980s. Like yesterday, lunch was great; there were 12 plates of different foods (humus, salad, slaw, pickled beets, more humus, etc.) for us to selectively enjoy on pita bread. We were also served falafel, baklava, and some more of that wonderful coffee with cardamom. Back on the bus, we went a short distance to The Shepherds’ Field, a shrine to the setting of the shepherds summoned by the angel after the birth of Jesus. This is a gated area with a cave reconstructed using limestone to help our imaginations re-enact the shepherds seeing the brightly shining star, hearing the angels and setting out to find the manger. We heard a reading from Luke 2, sang several songs, including O Little Town of Bethlehem and Silent Night.
The bus then took us up toward the peak of the ridge where we made the final climb of the day to get to the Church of the Nativity which is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The structure is built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, and it is considered sacred by followers of both Christianity and Islam. Here at the Church of the Nativity, the cave is pointed out as where he was born, and the manger as where he was wrapped in swaddling clothes (two places vs. one). Within this complex are two separate churches: one church administered by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox, and a Franciscan Church which adjacent to the other church and still part of the same complex.. The Greek and Armenian Orthodox portion is the oldest church and was undergoing extensive renovation when we were there. It is through this church that visitors access the birth site. We only had to wait 20 minutes to get down into the Grotto of the Nativity to see where Jesus was born. We had to descend very steep marble steps, then enter a cavernous room filled with other pilgrims trying to take photos and kiss and pray at the places of Jesus Christ’s birth. From there we returned up to the church level and went to the larger Franciscan church. Our tour guide was born in Bethlehem and has lived there all his life; he is a Palestinian Christian from the Syrian Church and grew up praying in Aramaic. He did a great job, but was sometimes hard to understand with his accent.
Our last stop for the day was to a Palestinian souvenir shop that is used by St. George’s College because of their locally made products (olive wood, jewelry, etc.) and fair prices. I bought a few trinkets, but had to spend a lot of time on the phone with the credit card company while everyone else was on the patiently waiting for me! I guess my redemption is writing this daily blog. (Just kidding!)
We went back to the college, had dinner and I personally am now ready for bed.