Mount of Olives panorama

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

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Bethlehem, Ein Kerem, and Jerusalem, Day 1

A panoramic view from the Jericho Resort Hotel looking towards the Jordan River and the sunrise

We checked out of the Jericho Resort Hotel very early and then drove up to Bethlehem, taking the back way through Al-Azaria (Bethany) on the east side of the Mount of Olives to avoid Jerusalem traffic. We then crossed out of Israel proper into the Palestinian Territories.

Shepherds Field

At Bayit Sahur, a neighboring village to Bethlehem, we went through the traditional Catholic Shepherds Field, visiting two of the caves first and singing a few Christmas carols. We then took up a teaching/worship station overlooking the valley north of Bethlehem, where I read Luke 2:8–18, discussed it quite a bit, and then led us in singing “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful.”

This Franciscan Church commemorating the angelic annunciation to the shepherds was designed to look like a tent
The current Catholic Shepherds Field is on a site with many ancient caves, where shepherds in fact might have sheltered in Jesus' time

At one of the "worship stations" that overlooked the hillsides north of Bethlehem

This open hillside provides the view the shepherds would have had when the angels announced the glorious birth of the newborn king

The Wright Family at Shepherds Field


After visiting Tabash, one of the Bethlehem megashops, where local Christians sell olive woods and jewelry, we went to the Basilica of the Nativity. The traditional site of Jesus' birth was identified by Empress Helena, Constantine's mother. Local Christians identified a grotto, or cave, where tradition held the Nativity had taken place. Constantine had a large basilica built over the site between A.D. 333-339, and originally it had an opening in the main hall so that worshipers could look down on the site. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian replaced the original church in A.D. 565 with an even larger basilica. In this building, the grotto was covered and is now accessed by steps under the altar. This church was almost destroyed during the Persian invasion of A.D. 614, but according to legend, the Persians stopped when they saw a depiction of the three Magi, who were dressed as Persians, carved on the front of the church.

Floor plan of the original basilica built by Constantine. The dotted lines within the octagon represent the viewing area into the grotto

Floor plan of the current church, originally built by Justinian. Various caves under the basilica, including the Grotto of the Nativity, appear as dotted lines.

Newly restored and cleaned, this is the brightest and best I have seen the inside of the Church of the Nativity

Openings in the floor of the nave reveal the original floor level and the mosaics of the original church

The Crusaders painted saints on the columns

The church was renovated by the Crusaders, who made the front door much smaller. While the main altar is owned by the Greek Orthodox, rights to the grotto are shared with the Armenians, who have their own altar in one of the transepts, and the Roman Catholics.

The current grotto has been so altered and covered in cloths and ornaments that the original cave cannot really be seen. Entrance is by narrow stairs, and it is very crowded.

The entrance to the grotto

A 14-pointed star (representing the 3 sets of 14 generations in the genealogy of Matthew 1) marks the traditional spot of Jesus' birth
Stacy Jennings at the birth site
The altar marking the manger, where the baby Jesus was first laid

Next to the Basilica of the Nativity is the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine. A newer, more open church. From it one can access another set of caves known as St. Jerome's Grotto. Jerome was a Roman Catholic saint who moved to Bethlehem to translate the Bible into Latin. To do this, he wanted to be as close to the birthplace of the Word Made Flesh as he translated his word. This grotto, and some other caves, are part of the same cave system as the Grotto under the Nativity Church.

The inside of St. Catherine's

The cave system under the Nativity Church and St. Catherine's. The Nativity Grotto is no. 1, and St. Jerome's Grotto is nos. 5 and 10.
Because any of them are just as likely to have been the place where Mary and Joseph sheltered that first Christmas Eve, and because they are not as cluttered with ornamentation, lamps, and hangings, I usually take my groups there to have our Christmas devotional. Unfortunately, when we were there this time, a service was being held in them, and we were not able to go down into them, so I promised this group that I would post pictures from previous trips so they could see what it was like.

This and the next few pictures from St. Jerome's Grotto come from previous tours in 2014 and 2017.

Coming out of St. Catherine's, we took a group picture in the courtyard and then got some pictures of Manger Square all decorated for Christmas.

Our 2018-19 group in the forecourt of St. Catherine's

Manger Square decorated for Christmas

The last thing we did in Bethlehem was have a fantastic lunch at the "Tent Restaurant," where we had traditional Palestinian "mixed grill."

The Bethlehem Tent Restaurant.

 `Ein Kerem

Crossing back into Israel, Rami drove us to the town of `Ein Kerem on the west side of Jerusalem. It is in the "hill country of Judah" and is the traditional site of the home of Zacharias and Elisabeth. As well as a church commemorating the birth of their son John the Baptist, which has plaques with Zacharias' inspired canticle the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79) in its courtyard, it has a beautiful church commemorating the Visitation, when Mary came to visit and stay with her relative Elisabeth. Upon their meeting, the yet unborn John leaped in Elisabeth's womb, and Elisabeth was inspired to recognized Mary as "the mother of my Lord." Mary then sang the canticle the Magnificat. We asked out one mother-daughter pair, Stacy and Kelsey Jennings, to read the respective lines of these two women from Luke 1:40-55.

`Ein Kerem is located in the hill country of Judah west of Jerusalem
The water source for the town is still known as "Mary's Spring," because the mother of Jesus supposedly drank from it upon her arrival

The Church of the Visitation above `Ein Kerem

Walking up the steep hill to the Church of the Visitation

Mary meeting Elisabeth

Kelsey and Stacy Jennings with the statue of Elisabeth and Mary

Stacy and Kelsey Jennings read the parts of Elisabeth and Mary from Luke 1:39-55.

Plaques with the Magnificat in different languages

Glida (ice cream) in En Kerem

The Church of John the Baptist

Israel Museum

Our last stop for the day was the Israel Museum, where we saw the huge model of Jerusalem in the first century and the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept. We then checked in to our hotel, the Dan Panorama.

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