Thursday, 4 December 2008

jerusalem (6) - outside the walls

Last night we finished the evening with a discussion on whether Jesus was really born in Bethlehem. A very interesting topic which tied in with many of the things Jonathan Evens and I have been reflecting on in how we read and use scripture. Anyway, today we headed outside the city walls only to encounter a very different type of wall.

First stop was Ein Karem and a visit to the Church of the Visitation. This beautiful church was built by Antonio Barluzzi, one of many he was responsible for in the Holy Land, and marks the home of Zecharia and Elizabeth where Mary went to see her cousin to share the news of her pregnancy. The church was decorated by frescos and provided a suitable backdrop for a powerful meditation on confession by Brother Robert in preparation for descending the hill to visit the Church of John the Baptist, which is considered to mark the birth place of John. The idea is that the visitation took place at the family's summer house up the hill and the birth in the town house.

Back on the coach for a trip to our main destination of the day, Bethlehem. This began with a visit to three different sites of shepherds' fields on the outskirts of Bethlehem; the first in the grounds of the YMCA and the second marked by a relatively new Orthodox Church covered in amazing frescos and with ancient olive trees in the grounds. The third site conformed to my idea of what the setting of the shepherds field should look like and was marked by another Barluzzi church with exceptional accoustics which we tested with some hymn singing. At this site Brother David gave us suggestions for praying through the birth narratives of Jesus in the light of the day's visits.

After a brief lunch we headed into Bethlehem proper and were delighted to discover that there was hardly anyone at the Church of the Nativity. Often the place is packed and the college has trouble getting course members in but today we had it almost to ourselves. This meant we had plenty of time and space to visit the cave site in the church believed to be that of Christ's birth. Whether or not it really is the spot where Christ was born, it was certainly a place that evoked prayer, singing and thankfulness for the incarnation and I was pleasantly surprised that it was not gaudy or tacky as I had feared it might be.

We then headed to the coach for our trip back to Jerusalem. On the way down from the Church of the Nativity I loooked across the valley to a very controversial Jewish settlement which is still under construction and was a powerful reminder of the tensions of the region.

This was followed by an even more powerful reminder as we left Bethlehem and had to pass through an Israeli checkpoint in the wall being constructed across much of Israel. Bethlehem is in The West Bank not Israel and so we had to show our passports to the Israeli soldier who boarded the coach. Our guide, George, is a Palestinian Christian with a Jerusalem identity card and he had to leave the coach and pass through the checkpoint on foot as a matter of course. We began to appreciate the impact of the wall on the community in Bethlehem where it is extremely difficult to move between the West Bank and Israel. I say no more about it at this point as there is a lot more to discover and learn about the situation but the contrast between worshipping at the birth place of Christ and then encountering the wall for the first time was quite something.

I'm off to Galilee for four days tomorrow and am not sure what communications will be like so may not be blogging for a while. I've also got to get up at 5:30am so in this post I haven't gone into detail about reflections on the day and my experiences; I need to mull things over for a while but hopefully the pictures give an impression of the highs and lows.

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