Holy Land Pilgrimage 2019 – 11th November – by Sue Hall
Bethlehem and the Nativity
And so we reach the penultimate day of our pilgrimage. We meet our coach outside the now familiar Damascus Gate, for the journey to Mount Zion and the site of the house of the High Priest, Caiaphas, and the beautifully mosaiced Church of St Peter Gallicantu. It is believed Jesus was imprisoned here after his arrest, and so we climb down into a deep dungeon hewn from the rock where we pray and sing. We remember that outside Caiaphas’ house Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, as Jesus had told him he would. I am reassured by knowing that in spite of Peter’s fallibility, weakness and brokenness, Jesus loved him.
Travelling to the next site of our pilgrimage, the Shepherd’s Fields, involved passing into the West Bank. Bassem talked movingly about the plight of the Palestinians in Bethlehem and the Occupied Territories, and the stark fact that in 1948, 43% of the Palestinian population of Palestine were Christian, and today Christians represent only 1% of Israel’s population (29% in the West Bank and Gaza). He explains how the Christian families that remain are determined to stay and become the ‘living stones’ of the church, protecting the holy sites for generations to come. It is a timely reminder that the church is the people, which can be easy to lose sight of in this place.
These thoughts are drawn together by Margaret talking to us about our response to what we have witnessed in some of the places we have visited in recent days, especially in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: some of us (myself included) have felt discomfited by what can seem to be ‘religiously superstitious’ practices, such as rubbing cloths, clothes, even medication and an iphone onto the slab where it is believed Jesus’ body was lain after it was taken down from the cross. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with what Jesus taught us about how to live.
At the Shepherd’s Fields we think about how God chose the shepherds, regarded by the Jews as unclean because of their way of life, as the first people to witness the miracle of Jesus’ birth. Our communion site looked over the scrubby hillside where the shepherds would have been tending their flocks in the cold of a December night. We saw another cave, where the shepherds could sleep safely, which housed some remarkably kitsch and culturally problematic nativity scenes, sparking a discussion of why Jesus is so often portrayed, even in this part of the world, as blond and blue-eyed.
At our communion, Father John-Francis reminded us of the importance of caves in the Bible, of the ‘immensity cloistered’ in Mary’s womb, and how that immensity lives in our hearts, in the cave of our human frames.
Lunch today was not in a restaurant, but a hospital. Luckily the food did not live up to the image conjured by the words ‘hospital food’ but was instead delicious and plentiful. We learned about the impressive work the hospital does for all the people of Bethlehem and the West Bank’ irrespective of religion or ethnicity, and the rehabilitation it offers for disabled patients. Funding for the hospital is a huge issue, staff are not paid on time, and yet the hospital felt like a happy, buzzing place, full of hope.
Our afternoon was largely spent queueing. Bassem had warned us that we could queue for ages, but he did a great job of getting us to the Church of the Nativity quickly and fending off pushers in. The queuing, though tedious at times, was also powerful, as we moved as one group in anticipation, together with Christians from all nations. Margaret asked us to think about what Jesus would have made of the thousands of people queueing for hours in a huge church to kiss and prostrate themselves at these sites
After a couple of hours we descended into the cave of the nativity and saw where it is believed Jesus was born and the site of the manger. I couldn’t help thinking down in that cave about how awful it must have been for Mary to go through her birth pains and deliver Jesus in such a place, in the dark, and why God chose such a place to become flesh, for his son to be born.