Day Two: Ein Kerem and Bethlehem

Dear friends,

I think I can do this in one blog post today 🙂 Although we had another full and interesting day.

In the morning, we had a 1 hour lecture from Rodney as I think we will on most days to help us understand what we are going to see. We are going more or less chronologically through the life of Jesus, so today we went to Ein Kerem, which is associated with the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, and to Bethlehem, site of Jesus’ birth.  We did some Bible study and shared reflection together on the Magificat, the famous Song of Mary from Luke’s Gospel that Mary said at the Visitation.

Luke’s Gospel mentions that when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth “in the Judean hill country.” No town is mentioned, but this has been traditionally associated with the village of Ein Kerem, which is about 6 miles west of Jerusalem. A Franciscan church that was built in the 1940’s (replacing the last in a series of older structures) marks the location. It was a beautiful spot to reflect and pray on the meeting of these two amazing women, with gardens and mosaics everywhere.

We also realized what an international thing Holy Land pilgrimages are. There were many, many other tour groups at both Ein Kerem and Bethlehem today, but none of them were from the US (or New Zealand) except us. We saw many Nigerians, Phillipinos, Russians, Indonesians, Italians, and Spaniards.

This was particularly neat because in the garden courtyard of the Visitation church, there is a wall with plaques with the Magnificant written in dozens of different languages. Each group went up to the wall and said the Song of Mary in their own language. We said it in English. (I remarked to my New Zealand friend Naiomi, who is the youth minister for her diocese, that there was no Maori plaque. She said that in another location in the Holy Land, which commemorates where Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer, a Maori plaque was just added. Our New Zealanders did sing a hymn in Maori at the Visitation church, which was lovely.)

In Ein Kerem we also saw a church dedicated to John the Baptist. Supposedly it has both the grotto he was born in and the rock he gave his first sermon on. I guess I find it a little unlikely these two things happened a few feet apart, but it was a pretty church.

After that we crossed what Israelis call the Security Barrier and what Palestinians call the Apartheid Wall into Bethlehem, which is in the Palestinian controlled West Bank. We learned it’s against Israeli law for Israeli citizens to enter the West Bank. This is one of those strange situations that causes weird problems, like Palestinian Christians who are Israeli citizens (like the Dean of the Anglican Cathedral) who can’t technically go to Bethlehem to worship and visit the holy sites. Apparently the Dean has a special clergy pass so he can go there to celebrate Christmas. It was moving and sad to see the graffiti  on the wall, like a dove of peace wearing a flak jacket.

The Church of the Nativity was somewhat disappointing, partly because it is under construction and so was completely covered inside with scaffolding and dust clothes, and partly because what we could see had the same issues as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: six official Christians sects marking out their various territories and chapels. However, we did get to go (after standing in line for 2 hours) into the cave where Jesus was purportedly born. The Church of the Nativity is the only Byzantine-era church that survived the many waves of conquest, so it was neat to be in a church over 1,500 years old.

We found the people we met in the West Bank (our church guide, restaurant wait staff, and shopkeepers) to be incredibly warm and friendly. We also drove by the village where our bus driver Ahbed is from. Ahbed is pretty amazing with our huge tour bus. He drives it like it’s a Mini Cooper, making 3 point turns in tiny spaces. Tomorrow Ahbed is driving us to the Jordan River and Judean wilderness where Jesus was tempted.

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