As the strains of John Starnes singing “Jerusalem: The Holy City” poured over the loudspeaker of our bus and the gleaming Dome of the Rock on the temple mount came into view, it was definitely a “Pinch me! Am I really in Jerusalem?” moment for most of us on our tour.
We didn’t stay long, however. At that point, we were actually just passing through the city on our way to Bethlehem, just 7 km away. Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory and Israelis are not usually allowed to pass through the checkpoint in the wall or “security barrier” that separates Jerusalem from the Palestinians. As a tour guide, however, Shimon has a special permit that allows him to take groups into Bethlehem. He accompanied us for lunch and then to a business run by a Christian family who make and sell beautiful olive wood carvings. There he stayed, however, passing us off to a delightful guide who resides in Bethlehem because he doesn’t feel comfortable or safe being out and about on the streets of that small city.
Our first stop was the Church of the Nativity, the supposed birthplace of Jesus. The church is administered jointly by the Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches. It consists of the main Basilica of the Nativity and the adjoining Church of St. Catharine. The Grotto of the Nativity, an underground cave located beneath the basilica, enshrines the site where Jesus is said to have been born. A large 14 pointed silver star set into the marble floor beneath an altar and surrounded by silver lamps and candles is said to mark the exact spot where Mary gave birth. A few feet away is the Grotto of the Manger, another shrine marking the spot where she apparently laid him in the manger.
We went, we saw and we left. To be perfectly honest, it all seemed rather hokey to me and I found it somewhat disturbing to see other groups of pilgrims who appeared to be completely caught up in worshipping the place. I don’t mean to show disrespect for anyone else’s religious experience, but I do have to wonder how anyone can claim to know the “exact” spot where our Saviour was born in a humble animal shelter some 2000 years ago and, as I’ve said before, I don’t believe that there is any holy magic in the places where he was.
From there, we descended to the Shepherd’s Fields, a park-like area commemorating the angel’s visit to the shepherds to announce the Messiah’s birth on that night so long ago as well as the fields of Boaz where Ruth the Moabitess gleaned. (Ruth 2:1-23) Notice that we descended to the shepherd’s fields. Again, the way I visualized things has been turned upside down! In my mind, I always pictured Bethlehem on lower ground and the shepherds tending their flocks on hillsides above town. In reality, communities throughout Israel are built on the tops of the hills. The shepherds and their sheep would actually have been on the hillsides below Bethlehem and they would have had to climb up to visit the newborn child. (Luke 2:8-17)
As we made our way back to Jerusalem to check into our hotel, I was reminded afresh how lucky we are to be Canadian. As we passed through the checkpoint, Shimon simply told the soldier on duty where we were from and we were sent on our way. Apparently, bus loads of Canadians and Americans pass through with ease while other nationalities are checked much more carefully. Vehicles driven by individuals are searched!