The Holy Land: The Little Town of Bethlehem
As we passed the Kidron Valley to cross the West Bank, our guide mentioned two things relevant to our going through a checkpoint to cross the West Bank: the illegal residents in the West Bank, and Israel not wanting Palestine to control the border with Jordan, Egypt and the Sinai desert. After the checkpoint, the scenery changed to a sad picture: a sleepy town, rather scruffy town – pile of garbage on vacant lots and open ditches. Our guide told us that that part of the West Bank has no government because they wanted autonomy. He did not talk much about the area's political history.
I thought it ironic to see a rather neglected place leading to Bethlehem considering that Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread” in Hebrew, is depicted in the Bible as a tranquil and pastoral place. It was known for its fertile and cultivated fields in biblical times; It was referred to in the Old Testament as Ephrat, which means fruitfulness.
We first visited the Shepherd’s Field in Beit Sahur near Bethlehem. It was the place where the shepherds heard the good tidings of Jesus’ birth from the angel of the Lord who told them to go to Bethlehem to adore the child (Luke 2:1-20). We walked the road to the area called Siyar el-Ghanam (Place for Keeping Sheep) where we saw a fountain and a statue in the middle. Our priest celebrated a mass in the nearby makeshift chapel. One of the highlights of the place was a tent-shaped Chapel of the Angels, designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi; it was built over the remains of a 6th-century church and agricultural monastery. Sadly, the church was under renovation so that we were not able to see the church interior to admire the wonderful paintings and to see the light said to penetrate the concrete glass dome.
After shopping and lunch, we visited the Basilica of the Nativity. As the birthplace of Jesus, the Basilica of the Nativity is one of the most visited holy sites in the Holy Land. Visitors were swarming up inside the Basilica. We stood in line to enter a narrow and low stone-carved gateway to the church to see the grotto (the place of the manger). Once inside the church, we waited in line to go through another narrow stone-carved doorway under the Nave of the church. It led to the narrow steps where someone was directing the traffic to the grotto. Despite the crowd and a short visit, the experience was astonishingly intimate. At that moment, I got goose bumps and felt the mystery of the place.
Within the compound of the Basilica, there were other places of worship for non-Catholics and the chapel of St. Jerome who translated the Bible into Latin and lived there for many years. We toured the medieval underground and saw the pit said to be the place in Psalm 88 ( Psalm of the sons of Korah: O LORD, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you... You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths). Nearby, we found the Church of St. Catherine, the venue for the midnight mass that is broadcast all over the world on Christmas Eve.
Near the basilica, traffic of sellers and buyers and tourists and pilgrims jostled with the commercial part of the pilgrimage – camel rides, handcrafted and religious trinkets, food (nuts) carts. There was even a knock-off for a familiar coffee shop brand.
Our visit was on the eve of the arrival of the Pope to Bethlehem so it was a busy day. Outside the Basilica, a solitary guard stood by the UN vehicle. A stage where the Pope probably was to deliver his blessing and access to the whole vicinity were being prepared for government officials and ordained-religious people as I stood and watched. It was a hopeful sight. Oh little town of Bethlehem indeed! “The hope and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
|Scruffy Little Town|
|Chapel of the Angels @Shepherds Fields in Beit Sahur near Bethlehem|
View of the Church from the outside and the narrow doorways (Church of the Nativity)
An homage to St. Jerome who translated the Bible in Latin @the Church of the Nativity
|Mosaic Tiles from the original church @ Church of the Nativity|
|Getting Ready for the Pope's Arrival|
|Getting Ready for the Pope's Arrival|
|Traffic of buyers near the Church of the Nativity|
|A knock-off of a famous coffee shop|
Note: All photos by the author