Sunday, February 10, 2008

More from J-Term

I think I've mentioned before how the first place we stayed while in "the Holy Land" was in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is actually not Israel, but rather is Palestine. It's in the West Bank, and has a high wall around it with a checkpoint through which all people must go. Because we were "Americans," we just showed our little blue passport most of the time, and voila, we were ushered right through.

Bethlehem was a really neat place. It's bigger than my hometown, so I was somewhat amused when I thought about the Christmas hymn, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." But, I reckon it has grown over the years. The big pilgrimage site in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity. This church is where many historians, archaeologists, and theologians believe to be the place Jesus was actually born. Well, in the cave underneath the church, anyway. The church is held by Catholics and Eastern Rite churches. The Catholics have their side, and the Eastern Rite (Coptics, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox) have theirs. The difference is like night and day, but it was neat. When pilgrims go down into the cave, there is a line to the altar under which it is believed Jesus was actually born; as in, "Bam, Congratulations. It's a boy." The place is marked by a 14 point star with a bowl type divot where people can place stuff to be blessed. It was an amazing feeling putting my hand on that place.

A few feet away is another cave-ish type place that is believed to be the "quiet place" where Mary and Joseph laid Jesus after he was born. There is a glass case with a baby doll in there now to recreate the scene. When you leave that place, there is a long hallway type thing with pictures of Mary and Jesus, with candles hanging from the ceiling. All the soot has turned the roof black.

When pilgrims leave the cave, they go out through the way the Catholics generally enter. That puts you right back up top by the main altar that you see when you enter the church. Oh, and another interesting thing; people have to stoop to enter the Church of the Nativity, and guards are outside to make sure men do not wear hats inside. It opens up to a huge room with the main Eastern Rite altar ahead, a "side altar" off to the right, and in a different part of the building is the Catholic Church. In the main part of the church, when you first enter, there are also doors on the floor which open and close to show pilgrims the original floor which has been destroyed by conquests, as well as time. This church is actually used by all these denominations today. The Sunday we were there, the Eastern Rite churches were having Christmas and the Catholic side was having Epiphany. It was pretty amazing being in the Church of the Nativity while people were celebrating Christmas. There was even a big parade with the priests, the boy/girl scouts playing music, and a procession with the worshipers and the patriarch. The Church of the Nativity was a high point of the trip for me. Here are pictures from the church. (stooping to enter, the side Eastern Rite Altar, and the original floor). Enjoy!

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