Holy Land: it all started here

6:40 pm – Israel Time – 3/26/2015

I am sitting at the desk in my hotel room. My roommate, Debbie is bustling about behind me getting ready for dinner tonight. Matt Maher’s live album is playing quietly from my iPod speakers. Our hotel is directly to the west of the old Jerusalem city walls that separate East and West Jerusalem. On the road between the two there was heavy fighting from 1948-1967. When we drive down the road, you can see bullet holes in the buildings. But here all the buildings are made of thick stone to keep cool in the summer and warm in winter. So the bullets are no more than pockmarks like acne scars on the gray stone. Now this area is a vibrant place full of people and light.

At one time Christians were the majority in Jerusalem. However, the city was under Turkish control and Christians were not allowed to display crosses on the outside of their homes. So they designed their windows frames to look like fish scales, just like the Icthus, the ancient symbol for Jesus Christ. When the war to create Israel started, many Christian and Muslim families (who are both of Arabic descent) left the city. They hoped to come back after the war ended and the city was safe again. However, when a family would leave, a Jewish family would then take over the house. The war ended, but the Jews did not give the homes back. So the Christians could not come back to their family homes. In the 1960s, the city declined from a majority Christian to only 35 percent; today it is 1 percent; and they say that by 2030 all that will be left in Jerusalem is an altar and a priest. Today many Christians who were from Jerusalem have immigrated to South America.

“Fish scale” windows on a house we passed in Bethlehem

Here in the Holy Land, I learned about a misconception that I have held for years and probably most of us Americans also have. When you listen to the news and you hear about a conflict “between Arabs and Jews in Israel” or between “Palestine and Israel”, the word Palestine or Arabs does not automatically mean Muslim. In fact, they are just as likely to be Christians as to be Muslims. Arab is the race and not all Arabs are Muslims; many are Christian. In the Holy Land, there are lands that have always belonged to Palestinians on which Jews are building and there are lands that belong to Israel on which Palestinians are building. The situation is so complicated and it is very hard to wrap your head around it as an outsider. And of course all of our American news media is run by outsiders to the situation in the Holy Land. So we Americans are very unlikely to grasp one iota of what is really happening here. And please do not just take my word for it. I am merely sharing with you what our tour guide, a Christian man, native to Jerusalem, has told us.

After the history lesson on the bus from our tour guide, our first stop of the day was Herodium, the Palace of Herod the Great. From a distance it looks like a mountain on the horizon:

Herodium

When you climb to the top, it’s a whole different story. Herod was a terribly paranoid man. So he decided to take 1000 workers away from building the temple in Jerusalem to move a medium hill on top of a small hill to make a small mountain. Then he had them hollow out the hill and build a palace and eventual tomb for him. From the top, it looks like this:

Standing on the rim of Herodium and looking inside

Have you heard the parable about how if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains? That all it takes is the faith the size of a mustard seed? Well mustard seeds grow wild here and Herod the Great’s reign ended in 4 BC. So when Jesus spoke about having the faith to move mountains, he wasn’t pulling random metaphors out of a hat. He was speaking about two concrete things with which his audience would be familiar. They would have known people who were among those 1000 workers who built Herodium. Jesus was saying, all you need is a tiny bit of faith to do the work that it would take a thousand workers. Jesus was practical like that. He made faith concrete and straight forward for the people in front of him.

Inside the cave palace, we walked through tunnels and stairs for days (but not literally):

Inside the tunnels of Herodium

Leaving the site of Herodium and really anywhere we drive in fields surrounding Jerusalem. Or anywhere where there is a patch of grass you see shepherds and sheep:

A father and son and their flock

Today we had Mass at Shepherd’s Field, the place where the angels appeared to the poorest people and lowest class people to announce the birth of the Lord. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.” and when he said that, he wasn’t just talking about the people who don’t have money. He was talking about the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the rejected, the lonely, and the depressed. Who is poor in your life? How are you blessing them?

Detail from one of the walls of the chapel

Prayers left in the wall of the grotto (cave) church in Shepherd’s Field. I left a prayer there for the poorest person I know, my father.

Next on the itinerary was a visit to a shop in Bethlehem. This particular shop is run by the family of the first ever licensed antiquities dealer in Israel. His grandson told us a story. A little over 60 years ago, this man ran a leather shop and was also known for appraising antiquities. Some shepherds had found a few rolls of leather in four clay pots in a cave. They brought the leather to this shopkeeper and he unrolled it. He saw papers written inside with the words of the book of Daniel. He could not be sure, however, how old it was so he bought all the leather scrolls, paper, and 4 clay pots from the shepherds. Eventually, he was able to give it to his Bishop who took it to the US to Princeton University where they used carbon dating to determine it’s age. It was really really old, like really old. You may have heard of them. They are called the Dead Sea Scrolls! After their value was discovered, they ended up in government control. The shopkeeper was able to keep one of the four clay pots they were found in. It sits in his family’s shop to this day:

The clay pot, the grandson who told us the story, and his grandfather in the picture on the wall over his shoulder

it is a family run shop and even the little ones help out…or get underfoot 😉

After lunch, we went to the Church of the Nativity. Often in scripture we hear about Jesus being born in a stable. Well, back in the day, stables were actually caves! There is a Greek Orthodox church and a Catholic Church built over the site. You enter the place through a small door in the rear of the Greek Orthodox church. To fit through the door you must bent your head down. You have no other choice. You must bow down to the site of Jesus’ birth. It is called the door of humility.

Inside the Greek Orthodox church is under repair. It is dark and cool. The walls drip with scaffolding and these beautiful chandeliers. Once you walk to the front of the church, there is a series of stairs that go all the way down to the cave. THE cave. This dark cramped hole in the ground was the place of the birth of the savior of the world:

The hole in the center of that star goes down to the cave floor where Jesus was born. I kissed my hand and touched the spot.

Being at the site of Jesus’ birth filled me with joy and hope. I felt Mama Mary and her baby boy telling me that things are gonna be alright. That the weight of the world doesn’t need to rest on my shoulders. That He is here! He can take my burdens. That’s WHY he is here! I am not alone and I will not be alone.

Candles inside the Greek Orthodox church at the top of the entrance to the cave

Church of St. Catherine, the Catholic church that rests above the cave of Jesus’ birth

 

Cave of St Jerome, adjacent to the Nativity cave, where Jerome spent 40 years of his life translating the Bible from Greek and Aramaic to Latin


Statue of St. Jerome in the courtyard outside the Catholic Church

Candles before a statue of Mary with her a baby resting below her. At exactly midnight on December 24 this baby Jesus statue is taken from here and placed down in the cave at the site of His birth

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