Today we moved to Bethlehem, our final stop on our pilgrimage. Situated 8kms south of Jerusalem the journey didn’t take us long however we did have to pass through the checkpoints stationed on the border. It was also the first time I saw the wall that has been erected between Palestine and Israel – it reminded me of the remains of the Berlin wall; high, concrete slabs dividing the city, some with pictures and slogans of them. It was ugly to see, and I don’t think that there is a better word to describe the sight. Our first stop in Bethlehem was the parish church of the Annunciation. It was a beautiful church, with high ceiling and little side chapels, and we took our places ready to join the local parish for their Sunday mass. Also in attendance were the local scout group who were celebrating their 64th Anniversary. The church was packed which was lovely to see, and we were all squished up to make sure almost everyone got some space. The music was lovely in the Mass, the local choir were enthusiastic and joyful. Just what one needs on a Sunday! What was also a nice surprise is the use of Latin for bits of the mass; the kyrie eleison for example, as well as some occasional tunes that I recognised. The psalm response was ‘laudate omnes gentes’ in Latin then Arabic. It was a very beautiful mass, and a privilege to join the parish on their normal Sunday liturgy. I always love going to mass in other parts of the world and still being able to follow the liturgy – even if it’s in a different language. What a beautiful example of the Church being a universal family.
After Mass and some social time after where we had the opportunity to buy some of the local wares form the parish shop we headed to find some lunch. We ate at Christmas Bells restaurant which is near to our Manger Square hotel. I think you start to get the theme of the place! Lunch was lovely and after we had mostly finished the waiter tuned on some music and passed out Fezes and some of our party joined them in some dancing. It was fun and silly and a joyful start to our time here.
Basilica of the Nativity
After lunch we headed to the Basilica of the Nativity. On approach it didn’t look anything like a church. There was partly some scaffolding (there are in the process of renovating the roof) but also because you are greeted by very high stone walled complex. The entrance to the Basilica is a very small door – you have to stoop to get in, and so is called the Door of Humility because everyone other than children have to bow their head when they enter. Once inside the church seems almost completely bare; there is no furniture, colour, decoration or statue apart from around the sanctuary and the main alter. The main columns that line the building as well as the roof were covered due to the renovations which was a bit of a shame. After some time queuing we went through to the grotto which is underneath the main altar. It is fairly well established that is the cave where Christ was born, primarily due to the fact that this is the only Church in the Holy Land that has never been completely destroyed at some point in its life. There is also a strong oral tradition that has been passed down, originally thought to have come from the Shepherds spreading the word (Luke 2:17).
The grotto itself is more spacious that I initially imaged, there is the spot marked believed to be where Christ was born and then a small alter at the spot thought to be where the manger was in which he was laid. I think that there is always a danger when visiting these sites to not just go though as a ‘Holy Tourist’. I think that I find the experience of being shepherded in and out with a certain level of speed somewhat distracting, and it will be in moments of contemplation after that I think I will resonate with me more. That being said, there is a certain special something to the Basilica and I am glad that I visited.
Next stop was to check in to our hotel, and then we had the remainder of the afternoon free. The majority of pilgrims decided to use the time to do some of our souvenir shopping. We went to a Co-operative, which is where 48 or so Christian Palestinian families have one shop together selling their wares. The aim of going here was not only to go home with some lovely and genuine keepsakes, but also because this is one of the best ways of supporting some of the Palestinian families here who have very little in terms of employment options and rely heavily on the tourist trade.
This evening we are having a social evening with some of the local Christian community which I hope will be a lovely time of fellowship and friendship. It is probably a blessing for them to know that they are not forgotten and it is good for us to know the reality of what life is like here. Please do, this evening, offer your prayers for our brothers and sisters here in Palestine, for resolutions and for peace is this most holy of places.