Monday, June 6, 2016

Tekoa, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem Peace Center, and the Separation Wall

Finally - decently well-rested, our group had breakfast around 6:30 today and left at 7:30 for Tekoa, the home of the prophet Amos (one of the twelve minor prophets.) Tekoa is an Israeli settlement in the Palestinian area of Judea's mountains and so the drive was scenic and very beautiful.
It's history is fascinating. Along the way, we passed the Herodion.
The Israeli government argues that the settlement is fine, but most other governmental forces consider these cities illegal. Before this trip, I had an image of what I believed Israeli settlements looked like and this experience has blown through that. 

These are cities and some of them extremely large. There is also much ongoing construction in spite of the fact that it is illegal. 

It is extraordinarily difficult for people living in them to cross over into other territories, gain various permits, and even drive on certain roadways (with other roads off limits).
We walked up a sloping hill with gorgeous view of olive groves to a spot where John Peterson spoke to us about what an actual manger is. It is stone and not the wood we might assume. The group also discussed what a threshing floor was and we gained an image of living in Jesus' time.
Once at the top of the hill, we had a marvelous view of the rolling hills of Jordan and a wonderful breeze. 

John told us we were now going to all be archaeologists. He explained that on one of his teaching trips, there had been a cave discovery and that we were going to all go into the cave and afterwards we would all search for pottery shards. I hit the pottery shard jackpot and found several, some dating from the Byzantine era. After a bit of stepping through the brambles, we all climbed down into the cave which was covered with spider webs, but at least it was very large and cool. 

Once inside, he explained the various interpretations of an "inn" and how people would have divided sections of caves into places for people and animals. It was fascinating. Jesus was born in a cave, a grotto. 
Next, we visited the Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society. From their website, they:
"strive to alleviate local poverty, decrease unemployment, increase income levels, decrease emigration, and sustain the Palestinian handicraft industry for the benefit of traditional artisan producers by effectively marketing our members' products, making raw materials available at a low cost, and developing our capabilities technically and managerially."
It was a great stop and I bought my first cross to hang on a wall in my home. The hospitality was also amazing from the staff. It was a rare opportunity for us to purchase Palestinian-made crafts.
After this visit, we had lunch at Ruth's Field Restaurant in the town of Beit Sahour. 
Beit Sahour (also Bet and Beith) is a Palestinian town and mostly Greek Orthodox. It is East of Bethlehem and supposedly is close to the location where the Angels announced Jesus' birth to the shepherds. The Shepherd's Cave is a convent here, built by St. Helena. Ruth was a terrific hostess!
After lunch, we visited Manger Square and the famed Church of the Nativity, also in Palestinian Bethlehem on the West Bank. It is the oldest church in the history of Christianity and was built by Constantine in 326 AD. It is a basilica. It was interesting to hear the Muslim call to prayer as we entered the Church of the Nativity - because of our tour timing!
This church on the site where Jesus was born is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is magnificent. The site is built over a grotto which marks Christ's birthplace. It is heavily used by several different groups for worship and processions including the Coptic Church and the Armenian Orthodox Church. Attached to this church and separate only by a wall is the Latin Church, also beautiful. In that church's base, another portion of the cave series holds a spot where Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, giving us the Vulgate Bible. The rooms also include The Chapel of the Innocents.

It is difficult to put into coherent words what emotions flow from being in the land, and even in the very spots of Jesus' death at Golgotha and his birth at this site. Many of our pilgrims, including myself, were awestruck and everyone seemed moved by simply being here. I found myself crying as I descended the stairs into the grotto. I hadn't expected the rush of emotion that came over me.

Downstairs, after everyone had gathered, Fr. Rob read a Gospel passage of Jesus' birth and we sang "O Little town of Bethlehem".
Back in Manger Square, we spent time at the Bethlehem Peace Center. The center showcases the history of Bethlehem with plentiful artifacts and currently holds three exhibitions: The Nativity Story, Gifts of the Magi, and Peace and Justice. Nativity scenes from around the world were featured.
Our last stop in this area included the separation wall at Rachel's tomb. It is here where you can clearly observe the sad and relentless situations that wall-building creates. I sincerely hope that we as a human race can evolve beyond this.
Huge concrete walls surround and are covered with harsh graffiti the Jewish holy site of Rachel's tomb, an area of actual pilgrimage. 

The tomb has been a place of pilgrimage for Jews, especially women unable to give birth. A Jewish tradition says Rachel’s tears have special powers, inspiring those visiting her grave to ask her to cry and intercede with God. The huge barrier serves to block the main road and basically imprison Palestinian families and businesses. The area was once a bustling and lively place and it is now very quiet and empty. A section of the wall opens once a year. 
This evening, we heard from guest speaker Ophir Yarden who spoke on Contemporary Issues - an Israeli Perspective. 

The image above is the Palestinian Dove of Peace. 
Now to dinner.
Tomorrow, we leave at 5:00 AM and travel to Wadi Qelt where we will spend some time in the desert! We will spend three nights at the Sisters of Nazareth and I am not sure whether or not they will have internet. In case they do not, blog posts will return as soon as possible!

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