Tuesday, March 10, 2015

I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked - Part 6

From the song: "I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked."

My pathway led through Bethlehem,
Ah! mem'ries ever sweet
The little hills of Galilee,
That knew His childish feet.

We had already been in the hills of Galilee and by late Saturday morning we had walked down the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane and had visited the location of the Upper Room on Mount Zion, where Christ held his now infamous Last Supper. The next leg of our journey would take us to the town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

Few people in the United States realize it but Bethlehem is completely controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Our guide, Yair, had to be replaced by an Arab guide. Yair was not allowed to pass the military checkpoint on the Bethlehem city line. So he said good-bye before we left Jerusalem and took he rest of the day off. I cannot remember the name of the new guide but he turned out to be a devout Christian and did a great job.

The bus drove up to the checkpoint. The nation of Israel is in the process of building a wall around the city of Bethlehem and along the edge of the West Bank to keep Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel. While Palestinians complain about the wall, Israeli sources say that between the years 2000 and 2003 there were 73 suicide bombings carried out from the West Bank. Following the completion of the first section of the wall in 2003, in the next three years there were only 12 suicide bombings carried out. So it seems to be working.

The Israelis claim the West Bank as conquered territory following their victory in the Six Day War in 1967. The Palestinians call it "Israeli occupied territory."

While the Palestinians in Israel are considered Israeli citizens, there are no Jews remaining in Bethlehem. It is populated by Palestinians - Christian, Muslim and secular. There are numerous crosses and minarets visible all over the city, many situated back to back. 

We unloaded from the bus in a parking garage whose escalators led up to the city streets. The first thing we saw, at the base of the escalators, was this sign.

There were interesting things as well as humorous things to be seen on our walk from the bus up to Manger Square, as the area around the Church of the Nativity is known.

(The Palestinian version of Starbucks)

It was explained to me that while the Palestinians do have their own police force in areas such as Bethlehem, which is under complete Palestinian control, they do not have a military.

Manger Square is just that - a public square between the Church of the Nativity and the Mosque of Omar, Bethlehem's only mosque.

The Church of the Nativity (top 2 pictures) is undergoing renovation and there was scaffolding inside and out. There was no actual work being done the day we were there.

One alarming fact was explained by our guide. In 1948, the population of Bethlehem was around 10,000. The Christian population of Bethlehem was 85%. By 1967, the population was just over 14,000 and Muslims made up 54%. The number of Christians had fallen to 46%.

Today the Christian population in the city where our Lord and Savior was born has fallen to a mere 15%. One cannot help but wonder if, when Muslims take complete control of Bethlehem and there are no Christians left in the city, the holy sites so important to Christians will still be available for us to visit. Some say the money taken in from tourism will keep the sites open, even when they're controlled by Islam. I'm not sure I agree.

We had lunch in an Arabic restaurant on the square before going inside the Church of the Nativity. The food was typical for the region with assorted meats, salads, dips (many made with hummus) and fresh pitas. It was quite good.

 (Our driver, David, is in the center of the picture)

After lunch we proceeded across the square to the Church of the Nativity. It is believed the church is built on the very site where Jesus was born.

Flying above the church is the Jerusalem Cross. The design originated with the coat of arms worn by Godfrey of Bouillon during the First Crusade and and it remained in use as the armorial of the Kingdom of Jerusalem from 1099 to 1291. The large cross and the four surrounding crosses represent the five wounds suffered by Jesus on the cross.

Main entry to the church is through the "Door of Humility." It is about 56" high and nearly everyone must bend forward to enter. The door was reduced to this size during the Ottoman period to prevent looters from driving carts into the church to gain spoils.

(Arden is 5'2" tall)

Inside, once you get past the construction, the church itself is beautiful. It is lit with various chandeliers and candelabras and the structure is held up by large, hand shaped, pink, polished limestone pillars. Some are wrapped with vertical wooden strips to protect them during the renovations.

Moving deeper into the church we came to the front of the sanctuary where the lights and other adornments are hung. It is incredibly ornate.

The first notions of the cave in Bethlehem being the birthplace of Jesus Christ were in the writings of Justin Martyr in 160AD. Constantine commissioned a church to be built upon the site in 326AD. It was destroyed by Byzantine emperor Justinian in 560AD. Justinian built a larger church on the site, which is the one remaining today. Legend has it that the Persians spared the church from destruction in 614AD because they were impressed by images of the Magi, in traditional Persian garb, that decorated the building.

In the front of the church, down a few stairs and under an alter, is a silver star with a hole in the center that is said to be over the exact spot where Mary gave birth.

To the left of that is a grotto that is said to be the actual site of the manger in which Jesus was laid. Even though it's not 100% proven to be the actual site of His birth, it's humbling and emotional to stand there and realize that this could be the very place where the shepherds and angels rejoiced at the birth of our Lord. (The pictures are dark but I hope you can make out the space. It's not fancy.)

It's interesting - as I sit here annotating my experience in the Church of the Nativity in my mind I'm hearing John McDermott's wonderful Christmas song "Gesu Bambino."

When blossoms flower e'er 'mid the snows,
Upon a winter night,
Was born the child, the christmas rose,
The king of love and light.
The angels sang, the shepherds sang,
The grateful earth rejoiced;
And at his blessed birth the stars
Their exultation voiced.

O come let us adore him
O come let us adore him
O come let us adore him
Christ the lord.

Our day was nearly over. We filed out of the church and walked back to our bus. Street vendors and young Arab boys tried and tried to get us to buy everything from souvenirs to gum to large bottles of Coca Cola. But we were headed to a store that was owned and operated by a Christian friend of Doctor Tolar. We bought several things there, including a couple of Jerusalem crosses for ourselves. Arden's is sterling silver with mother of pearl inlays and mine is silver and gold. We couldn't resist.

When the shopping was done we headed back to the security checkpoint. On the way into town they waved us through. On the way out of town the IDF officers boarded the bus just to take a look. Doctor Tolar, who was accustomed to this border crossing, said "We're just a bunch of Baptists from Texas." The young female IDF officer laughed and said "OK," and got off the bus. She and her male companion were both smiling and waived at us as we passed through the checkpoint on our way to the hotel. They were both packing some serious firepower.

Sunday morning would take us to the Dead Sea, the ancient fort known as Masada, and the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. I was looking forward to all of them.

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