Well ....... we went a little off script today. The plan for the morning was to visit different synagogues in the city. Jewish worship is a lot more amenable for people moving in and out of the service than ours, so stopping by to experience a part of the service is OK. However, six other clergy and myself decided we would try to get to Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity which is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. The challenges were that we would be without our regular guide, that it is hard to find taxis on the sabbath and that we would be on our own outside the wall in a town where Israeli citizens are forbidden by law to enter because of the risk of kidnapping. However, our regular guide assured us that it would be safe for us and with the help of the hotel, we got two taxis to make the short 20 min 8 mile trip to Bethlehem. We made sure to have our passports, and were not stopped at the checkpoints going out or coming it.
Our first stop was at the spot where the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce Jesus’ birth. The Church of the Shepherds was built there in remembrance. It is a small church - really just a round room with no pews just an altar. The group before us was singing, “Angels we have heard on high” and we decided to do the same resulting in quite a powerful experience with our voices echoing off the walls. We then proceeded to the Church of the Nativity. The entrance to the church is quite small forcing just about everyone to bend as they enter. This was done purposely so people would be reverent as they enter and is actually the third version of the entrance to the church. The church itself was absolutely gorgeous and ornate and since the Armenian Christians have just celebrated Christmas on January 19, the church was still decorated for Christmas. We were lucky enough to be able to get into the cave below the church (called the grotto) which is thought to be the site of Jesus birth. We were surrounded by Christians from all countries desperate to be able to be touch the silver star that marks the spot of Jesus’ birth.
We returned to Jerusalem for a late lunch, which seems to be the custom on the Sabbath, giving people a chance to attend services and then headed out to see the Christian Quarter of the Old City and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which marks the places where Jesus was crucified and buried. It was ironic to be able to visit the place of Jesus’ birth and death in the same day. Like the Church of the Nativity, the church was packed with people longing to touch and be in the presence of the artifacts within - some prostrating themselves on the slab of stone that is said that his body was prepared on and lots and lots of candle light. The care and use of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher belongs mainly to three groups - the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic - all who have very strict rules about when they can have services, where they can be and what they can do in the church. While we were there, there were two processions both with chanting in two parts of the church just across from one another. It was a bit crowded, but all seemed to work.
We ended our evening with the Jerusalem Night Spectacular Sound and Light Show at the David Citadel Museum (King Herod’s former palace). Tomorrow, we attend services at the St. George’s Anglican Cathedral and then leave Jerusalem for the Sea of Galilee.