Mount of Olives panorama

Mount of Olives panorama
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

After sacrament meeting in the Jerusalem Center, we grabbed some quick lunch and got on vans to take us to Bethlehem.  We were racing against the clock, because at Western Christmas the Latin Patriarch (Roman Catholic bishop) of Jerusalem goes in procession from Jaffa Gate to Bethlehem every Christmas Eve Day. This is a big deal.  Israeli police shut off Hebron Road, the street going south, and the military escorts him to Mar Elyias, a monastery not far from the checkpoint separating the Jerusalem Municipality from Bethlehem.  Various clerics come to meet him there, and as soon as he passes through the checkpoint, then Palestinian police and security, all in their dress uniforms, receive him and escort him to Manger Square.

Anyway, we managed to clear Hebron Road and make it into Bethlehem before the procession, but we saw the police making all the preparations.  Our vans dropped is off at the usual place near the bus garage, which mean hiking up the hill, not a particularly easy task for Mother, but between Lindsay and me, we got her up the hill . . .

. . . to Manger Square, which was one giant party!  Compared to Jerusalem, where Christmas is almost non-existent, Bethlehem was awash in Christmas cheer.  There were stages and giant sound systems set up in the square, and bands were playing and marching.

We quickly made our way into the Basilica of the Nativity (you can read about its history from my previous blog entry on Bethlehem).  There I ran into a local professor whom I met in an earlier trip who moonlights as a tour guide, and he helped us get up into the transept to watch the end of an Armenian service.  This put us in a perfect position to descend below the main, Greek Orthodox altar into that part of the cave which has been traditionally held to be where Jesus was born and first cradled.  Elaine called my connection "the Bethlehem Fast Pass."  Whether that was the actual spot, the early Christian tradition that places the birth in that system of caves is pretty strong . . . and it was certainly neat to be there today.

Lindsay on the Church of the Nativity: Being at this Church today just added to the religious, cultural experiences I have been having on this trip. It was interesting to see how the Armenian service was performed and how it is different from LDS church services. The incense was fun to see spread around despite the fact that it made me sneeze a lot. Being in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and at a church just helped add to the spirit that has been felt not only today but on this entire trip.

Mother on the Church of the Nativity: This was so interesting.  We had a guide get us in line to go down to the grotto where the Baby Jesus was supposed to have been born.  Whether it is the spot or not, the faith of hundreds and thousands of pilgrims make this place feel very holy and sacred. Entering into the short small opening, we went down steep stairs to kneel before the place of his birth where there is a star and can reach and touch the stone. Then into another cave-like place where the supposed manger was. Since it is what a manger of that time must have been, it didn't take much to imagine the small baby Jesus wrapped in his swaddling clothes lying in a manger.

My family outside of the Basilica of the Nativity on Christmas Eve
Elaine coming through the tiny door that opens into the basilica

Lindsay and Mother cannot believe that they have been to all these places!
In the south transept waiting to go down into the grotto

Mom, Samuel, and I touch the spot that was the traditional birth spot of Jesus Christ

Rach and Samuel in front of the St. Catherine creche

After coming up out of the grotto, we went in the Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic church adjoining the basilica, where we heard some beautiful organ music.  In its courtyard was a life-sized nativity.  After that, it was back into the throng and the press of Manger Square, where boy scout, school, and community bands where playing and marching.  Lots of children were on their father's shoulders, sporting Santa hats and their Christmas finery.

I love this picture of a Palestinian security officer holding his baby

We had over an our left before we needed to make our way back to the checkpoint to go back into Israel, but the noise and crowds started to get to be too much for Mom and for Samuel.  By chance we went into a small shopping center above the bus garage, just to get off the street, and we found on the second floor a "tent restaurant," as they call them, where we ended up having a great time, even though we had not planned to get lunch while we were in Bethlehem.  The Christmas music that was playing, the servers wearing Santa hats, and the general happy feeling made it at last sound like Christmas to us.
This fancy headwear came as a dinner favor!

Traditional middle eastern salads, pita, and grill

After a taxi took us back up to the checkpoint, we had a less-than-pleasant experience walking through the security check, getting a feeling of what it is like for so many Palestinians every day.

But that was soon behind us as we met our own vans, which took us to the open hillside preferred by most LDS groups as our own "Shepherds Field" (the traditional spot is not the busy, Christian town of Beit Sahour east of Bethlehem).   I enjoyed my previous experience here with the students and even a photo-shoot jaunt with my family, but being here on this particular night, again with my family, singing carols and feeling the spirit of the event that we commemorate on this night . . . well, it was just really special.

It was cold!

Still cold!

All of us at "Shepherds Field" with Bethlehem behind us
Lindsay on Shepherds FieldShepherds Field is where I think I felt the spirit the most today. Although this is NOT a field, but rather a rocky hill, and it was not simple to get to and through, yet the whole time I was walking over there and helping Nana, I just felt at peace and happy. As the sunset and we sang a few Christmas songs, I had an overwhelming confirmation that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church and that our Savior loves each and everyone of us individually. What an experience this is has been here is Israel for me. 

 Mother on Shepherds FieldI can't explain what feelings overcame me on this field tonight. It was cold with a fairly stiff breeze blowing.  In the background the lights of Bethlehem gleamed, and over Bethlehem, a single star began to shine...... As Eric paraphrased the part of Luke about the shepherds and the angels, and as the small group we were with sang the beautiful Christmas carols, I think tears ran down the cheeks of all of us as we remembered that precious birth so long ago. 

We sat facing Bethlehem, no longer a small sleepy city but a bustling metropolis which was busily celebrating Christmas in noisy and happy ways. But, on that hillside outside the city, a group of families celebrated with scripture and song our own testimonies of the birth of our Saviour, our Lord and our King, and we rejoiced. I will never forget this night.

Elaine on Shepherds Field: A little while after this picture was taken, the sun was setting and, as I looked over toward Bethlehem, I saw the first star that had appeared in the sky. It was directly over the Church of the Nativity's spire. I really felt like one of those shepherds who looked over and saw a star in the sky and wondered what it meant. it was really cool.

Yes, as the sun set, there was a SINGLE star over Bethlehem tonight!

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