Day 5 had us spending the day in Bethlehem, a place we had really been looking forward to visiting for obvious reasons. Along the way from the Dead Sea to Bethlehem, we saw shepherds in the countryside with their flock, along with wild camels and donkeys.
Sadly we learned that Bethlehem is now part of Palestine and the West Bank. In 2002, Israel built a 26 foot, 440 mile concrete wall separating Bethlehem from Israel. Israel said it built the wall to protect its citizens from Palestinian suicide attacks. The wall has watchtowers and barbed wire and there are 84 gates located along the wall that are manned by the Israeli military. Not all gates are opened daily, usually only 9 or 10.
Many Palestinian homes, farmland and businesses were destroyed when the wall was built. Our guide said that many people in Bethlehem, once able to move freely to nearby cities like Jerusalem, now face restrictions in movement and must have permits by the Israeli military and have to endure checkpoints to leave the area. He said approximately 5,000 businesses had to close and people have fled Bethlehem rather than live behind a wall where they felt like they were living in a prison. Tourists can walk freely between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, just passing through a turnstile.
Our first stop was at Shepherds Field. This is the place where the angels appeared to the shepherds, announcing Christ’s birth. (Luke 2: 8-14)
The main point to be taken from this is that the shepherds, considered to be the lowliest of the people with a boring, despised job no one else wanted, were the first to hear the announcement of Jesus’ birth. This was a sign that the “Good News” was available to all, from the lowliest shepherd to the noblest of kings.
At Shepherds’ Field, excavations found caves with evidence of human habitation where the shepherds tended their flock. Built above a large cave is the Chapel of the Shepherds’ Field, a Roman Catholic Church administered by the Franciscans, built in 1953.
The church has five recesses in the ceiling and 10 walls that incline inward that give it the appearance of a nomadic tent. The words of the angel to the shepherds are inscribed in gold. The dome is made of concrete and glass that allows light to penetrate it to resemble the divine light revealed to the shepherds.
We went into a nearby cave that dated back thousands of years and was thought to be like the cave where the angel announced the Lord’s birth.
Next up was lunch in Bethlehem. Breakfast and dinner each day were provided at the hotels where we stayed. Lunch locations were selected ahead of time each day by our guide so reservations could be made. Lunch today was at a small family owned restaurant where they had a specialty entree, an upside down chicken and rice dish. Lunch was usually pita bread with hummus and a mixture of fresh tomatoes and cucumber. Main dish was usually chicken and rice or chicken and french fries, sometimes fish. I don’t know whether it was because we were American, but we ate a lot of french fries at lunch and dinner. We were all really tired of french fries by the end of the trip.
After lunch we headed to the Church of the Nativity, the site where Jesus was born. This ended up being one of the most frustrating and disappointing stops of the week.
The church, or basilica, is the oldest church in daily use in the Holy Land. Under the church is where the actual cave is preserved, that is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.
To enter the church you have to stoop low, the entrance being slightly less than four feet high. Inside, the church has no pews but columns and wall mosaics from the 12th century. Clear trapdoors in the floor showed ancient mosaic floors from 339 AD. Today the church is a Greek Orthodox place of worship.
In the 16th century, to prevent people from entering the church with horses and cattle, the main entrance was walled up and transformed into a four feet high door, known as the “Door of Humility”, since visitors are forced to bend down to go through it.
When we entered the church through the small door, we were in the interior of the church, packed with tourists waiting to descend some narrow steps into the cave.
There was a line winding its way along the walls of the church. Our group was all together but really rude people kept trying to break into our line. Our guide kept telling us to stay close together, to lock arms if necessary. We stayed like this, jostled, pushed, shoved and crammed together for an hour and a half. Finally we knew the cave entrance was close. But then our guide yelled for us to push even closer together because security was getting ready to close off the last door before the descent to the cave because a worship service was due to start. Anyone in our group not inside the door would be left behind and it would be an hour before the door opened again. By this time our group was melded together with two other groups. Just when we thought we couldn’t crowd any closer, we did.
Finally we reached the stairs to the cave which were dark and narrow. We reached the room where you could kneel and touch a star on the ground where Jesus was born.
Close by, lit with candles was the manger.
You were not supposed to stop and take pictures and you had to quickly kneel, touch and immediately leave. The really disappointing and frustrating thing was waiting all that time and not being allowed to take the time to say a prayer and take in the reverence of the moment. I think most everyone in the group felt the same way. It had been crowded all week but today was the worst.
After that experience we were more than ready to head to the bus and our hotel in Jerusalem for the next three nights.
Next up: Jerusalem, part 1