Some of our lighter sleepers had the pleasure (?) of being woken at 4.40am this morning by the sound of the bells of the Holy Sepulchre Church, which on Sundays follow closely on the heels of the daily Muslim call to prayer at 4am.
Our coach journey to Bethlehem began with a prayer for travellers.We passed through the Kidron Valley and once again took in the breathtaking sweep of the Mount of Olives. Samir explained that the wealthy houses we were passing had belonged mainly to Christians and Palestinians prior to 1948 but in the years since the creation of the Jewish state, most have felt compelled to leave. 90% of these residences are now owned by Jews.
Security is strict in this area, particularly when passing from Bethlehem back into Jerusalem, though we experienced no difficulties or hold ups personally. There is no doubt that the Palestinians have suffered much under the occupation of the Jews. The Jewish settlements on their land are on a huge scale, dominating much of the route. The Israelis control the gas and electricity supplies and can cut off Palestinian homes at whim. However, the mains water supply isn’t even connected to their homes and they have to rely on collecting rain water in containers placed on their roofs, while Jewish families benefit from full mains water connection. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how deep the bitterness must lie within Palestinian communities towards their Israeli neighbours/occupiers. Each group must keep to their own designated areas of land – signs warn that it is against the law and dangerous to stray into the other sides’ land.
For those of us under the impression that Bethlehem is a long way from Jerusalem, today was an eye opener. As Fr Mervyn put it, “Bethlehem could almost be described as a suburb of Jerusalem.” Displaying what could be mistaken as an impressive keeness we arrived in the town of Beit-Sahor, a district of Bethlem, an hour and a half early for Mass! The town used to have a Christian majority but they are now firmly in the minority, interestingly the law still insists that the Mayor be a Christian. The Mass times had recently changed, so not to waste precious time we brought forward our visit to the Shepherd’s Fields.
Like so many of the historic Christian sites here, open areas have been built over with Churches, so there isn’t much chance of seeing flocks of sheep being tended to by faithful shepherds. The present day Chapel of the Annunciation was built by the Canadian Government in 1954-56 and is a bright, pretty building with paintings in the alcoves of the angel appearing to the shepherds, their visit to the baby Jesus and their joyful return home. Singing the “Gloria” and “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” in the Chapel was a delightful moment. Fr Mervyn spoke about how shepherds were the “riff-raff” of 1st Century Palestine – dirty, smelly and despised and yet the announcement of our Lord’s birth was made to them first, signifying that everyone is included in the message of salvation. Nor should salvation be seen as a future event – it is about liberation and can be achieved here on earth. If the world opened up to the deep joy of the Lord’s coming, we would receive the peace of The Lord and the world would be a better place.
Shepherds lived with their sheep in caves, which helped to protect them from enemies, wolves and the elements. These caves still survive and have been turned into chapel areas. Singing “Silent Night” really resonated as we thought about the lives of these humble men and the glory of what they witnessed. Samir reminded us of the two other Biblical stories that mention Bethlehem(“House of Bread”) – Rachel, the wife of Jacob, died in childbirth with Benjamin near here and her tomb is at the entry to Jerusalem. Ruth and Naomi returned to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem following their widowhood, and the field here is called ‘Boaz’s Field’ after Ruth’s second husband.
We returned to the Parish Church of Beit-Sahor for their Sunday Mass. This was a wonderful experience and we were deeply touched by the welcome we received from the locals. It is a normal Parish Church and would not look out of place in Oakwood/Chaddesden. Fully modernised with microphones and two large screens for showing the words of hymns and responses, plus a live feed of the service. It was about as full as our Churches on a typical Sunday morning, with a congregation of all ages. Before the service a group of elderly/middle aged ladies sang hymns and recited prayers. Not only were our priests permitted to con-celebrate the Mass, but one of our
group, Anne Kearney, was asked to read the Second Reading and Fr Mervyn proclaimed the Gospel in English after the local priest had done so in Arabic. One of the many joys of being Catholic is that you can follow the Mass wherever in the world you travel, as it proceeds in the same order. Many of us chose to say the responses in English at the appropriate times. Considering we didn’t understand a word, the priest’s homily was thoroughly engaging – a testament to the power of body language. Later Fr Mervyn told us that he had spoken about the Letter to the Hebrews being written to a persecuted church, and though the situation in Palestine isn’t as bad it still behoves all Christians to make the effort to stand up for the faith and eschew that Sunday morning lie in, in favour of attending Mass. The only part that caught us on the hop was the collection being taken during the Creed and not after the Bidding Prayers. Communion is received on the tongue here and many of us chose to adopt the practice for today. When blessing those too young to receive the bread, the priest lightly touched their head with the ciborium. After
Mass we were warmly invited to coffee, which was served outside. Coffee here is generally stronger and sweeter than at home and is served in small cups. It was moving to learn that one of the locals had told a member of our group – “Our Mass has been more beautiful for you being here today.” We left feeling a genuine Christian fellowship with our Palestinan friends.
Following this moving service we headed by coach to central Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, where Mary is reputed to have given birth to Jesus. When we think of a ‘stable’ a wooden structure tends to spring to mind, an idea reinforced by the typical Christmas nativity ornament – it can be quite a leap in one’s mind to move the Holy Family into a cave. But a cave it most certainly would have been in this region and era. The original Church was built by St Helena (who must’ve been a very busy lady) and unusually for Christian sites here, has only been destroyed once. Part of the original mosaic floor can still be seen. The Church is run by the Greek Orthodox rite, and its decoration is typical of their worship areas – huge candelabras with baubles that look exactly like Christmas decorations hanging from them. Fr Paul told us that baubles are used to drive the devil away as every where he looks he can see himself. Rich icons and a stunningly ornate altar and chapel area are towards the front of the Church but most of the building is empty, with large pillars supporting the ceiling. We hadn’t anticpated quite how long the wait was going to be to see the 14 point silver star that marks the spot where Jesus was born. We were in line for well over an hour and a half – not appreciated by most people’s feet, there will be some swollen ankles tonight!
The atmosphere inside was a little oppressive, with large crowds moving through a narrow doorway, we had to work as a team to keep our group together and prevent queue jumping – us Brits (and Chinese) being big fans of waiting your turn and not pushing in! The guards and Orthodox priests continually demanded “quiet” and shooed people away from the centre of the Church to the sides. The organisation of the Church could do with some work, several parishioners noticed that though there were lots of empty chairs available, no one was permitted to sit down during what was a very long wait. Supplies for the small gift area were brought in through the packed narrow doorway on a trolley several times, despite the fact that the gift area backed onto a wide open doorway. The passageway down to the cave was only wide enough for one person at a time to go through the door. It then widened out and we squashed inside to view on our hands and knees the spot where Mary reputedly gave birth and then, a few feet away, viewed a representation of the manger. St Catherine’s Church is next door to the Church of the Nativity but was unfortunately closed. This is the Church that hosts the Christmas midnight Mass from Bethlehem that is screened across the world every year. St Jerome lived here in his cell for 36 years and his statue stands at the front of St Catherine’s.
We had a late lunch at 1.45pm (lots of rumbling tummies!) in a restaurant with a magnificent view over Bethlehem. The food in the Holy Land has been a healthy mixture of meat, fish, quiche, stew, rice, pasta, olives, many different kinds of salad and puddings such as sponge cake, baclava, ice cream, apple pie and fruit. In fact, similar to an English diet. However, the fast food revolution has yet to hit in a big way, streets are not full of McDonalds, Subway, Burger King etc or even the local equivalent.
Our final stop of the day was a souvenir shop that supports 73 Christian families in Bethlehem. It was an emporium of goodies, though even with a 20% discount it has to be said it was more expensive than other local shops and markets. Fr Mervyn did his best to increase trade by bringing goods on to the bus from street sellers after we’d completed our purchases in the shop – if he ever decides to give up the priestly life we’re sure he could make a bomb as a trader!
The return journey took us past the Wall that tragically separates Jews and Palestinians. The Israelis cleverly designed it so that their section would include Rachel’s Tomb. The Wall separates families and friends. It is a deeply saddening site and a blight on both the landscape and the peoples who chose to create it. Political graffitti abounds, some by the famous Banksy. Fortunately we were not delayed at the army checkpoint and were not even required to show our passports, and we are foreigners, for local people whose families have lived here for centuries full documentation would be demanded. The Holy Land that Fr Mervyn first encountered in 1978 has changed beyond recognition.
Tomorrow sees us leave Jerusalem. It has been a marvellous experience, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. We have learnt and seen so much, some of the party have had a go at bartering with the locals, we know that everyone thinks the Brits live on Fish & Chips as they shout it at us (in a nice way!) when they realise where we’re from, we know to put used toilet paper in the bin and NOT down the toilet, and we are adept at getting out of the way of cars and dumpster trucks that tear down the alleys at alarming speeds, we’ve seen little begging, probably less than in London and only experienced isolated anti social incidents (a child spitting at us through the window of the guesthouse). We will be sorry to say goodbye to Ecce Homo, the staff have been attentive and friendly, but tomorrow we head for Jericho and the Dead Sea…