“Christmas” in Bethlehem

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After Ein Karem, we went on to Bethlehem, also known in the Bible as the City of David.  The first thing we learned about Bethlehem was that there is politics involved, as Bethlehem is currently under control of the Palestinian Authority, though quite adjacent to Jerusalem.  Therefore, Bethlehem is surrounded by walls. IMG_0281 Several years ago, Israel was having trouble with radical Palestinians coming into Israel and using suicide vests to terrorize and kill civilians.  They would also shoot guns across the valley into apartment homes on the Israeli side.  Children were killed. So the walls were built, and now you must cross through a checkpoint to get into and out of Bethlehem.  Happily, our guide Rolley was able to enter Bethlehem with us this time.  Rolley is Jewish by conversion so in past pilgrimages with our church, she wasn’t able to enter Bethlehem. However they have relaxed the rules a bit. IMG_0286

We went four places in Bethlehem: first to eat, second to the Church of the Nativity, third to the Shepherds’ Fields, and fourth to an olive wood store.  This was my first introduction to shawarma.  Ours was chicken (but it can be lamb), marinated and roasted on a special spit, then stuffed into pita bread, usually with a sauce like hummus, lettuce, and tomatoes.  It was very good.  One shawarma and drink usually cost about $12 in Israel (nothing is cheap there).IMG_0635_2

The Church of the Nativity is in the center of Bethlehem.  Across the street, they were setting up the famous Christmas tree that they would be lighting that night. IMG_0315Also across the street was a mosque. Christians are a significant minority in Bethlehem, but still a minority.

The Church of the Nativity is where tradition tells us that Jesus was born, and different denominations control different areas of the building.  We stood in line to enter the grotto adjacent to the Orthodox section, complete with chanting of prayers, lamps, incense, candles, and many icons.  When it was our group’s turn, they hurried us down into the grotto and pushed us through so they could keep the line moving.  In the grotto, a star was placed where they say Jesus was born.  Many people were kneeling and kissing the star.  Moving on from this grotto, we exited next to the Catholic chapel where the Pope gives his Christmas sermon every year. It was beautiful.

Orthodox section of the church (behind the renovation)
Orthodox section of the church (behind the renovation)
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Catholic section of the Church of the Nativity
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Place where Jesus may have been born
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Beautiful stained glass in the Church of the Nativity

We had a short devotion at the Church of the Nativity:

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 1: 4-7

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Caves in the Shepherds’ Fields

Then we were off to the Shepherd’s Fields, which is approximately where the shepherds heard the angels announce the birth of our Lord and sing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” The shepherds’ fields are on the edge of Bethlehem and are mostly a garden to walk around, with some small caves just right for devotions. We sat in one cave and sang several Christmas hymns, imagining the shepherds using these caves to sleep in and to protect their sheep.  I remembered throughout my childhood listening to John Denver and the Muppets’ Christmas album.  One of my favorites is “Noel: Christmas Eve 1913,” about that wondrous night:

Then spread my thoughts to olden times, to that first of Christmases
when shepherds who were watching, heard music in the fields.
And they sat there and they marveled, and they knew they could not tell
whether it were angels, or the bright stars a singing.

But to me heard a far, it was starry music,
the singing of the angels, the comfort of our Lord.
Words of old that come a traveling, by the riches of the times,
and I softly listened, as I stood upon the hill.

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Diane the former shepherdess

We heard from one of our fellow pilgrims, Diane, who used to be a shepherdess, about caring for sheep.  Sheep are very vulnerable creatures; they always need a shepherd.  “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” John 10:27  Then we were able to explore a bit. Our other Pastor Matt (from Light of the Valley Lutheran Church) was quite the spelunker and recorded for us his excavations deeper into the caves of the Shepherds’ fields.  IMG_0338IMG_0340

Since that day of the pilgrimage was “Christmas” to us, I’ll close with the lyrics to my favorite Christmas hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.

Oh, that birth forever blessed,
When the virgin full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Savior of our race,
And the babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face
Evermore and evermore.

This is He whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord,
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word.
Now He shines, the long-expected;
Let creation praise its Lord
Evermore and evermore.

O ye heights of heav’n adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing,
Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him
And extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Ev’ry voice in concert ring
Evermore and evermore.

Christ, to Thee, with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unending praises be,
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory
Evermore and evermore.

Amen.

Lutheran Service Book #384

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