Saturday 24 December 2011

At 3o’clock the afternoon on my first day in Israel I joined the Abraham hostel tour to Bethlehem. Unfortunately the guide was absolutely useless, he didn’t give us any extra information about the area or even tell us where we were going or what we were going to see.

Shepherd’s Field He took us to the Shepherd’s Field first.

Shepherd’s Field“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:8-10)

The fertile fields of Beit Sahour are believed to be where this biblical scene took place, 2 km southeast of Bethlehem. The ruins at Al-Ruwat include a cave used as a church from the 4th century, of which the barrel-vaulted roof (5th century) still survives. It is approached by a flight of 21 steps and has three apses with traces of mosaic and old frescoes.

After this we went into Bethlehem and to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The structure is built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, and thus it is considered sacred by Christians.

Floor mosaics surviving from the original basilica.

Floor mosaics surviving from the original basilica.

It is designed like a typical Roman basilica, with five aisles formed by Corinthian columns. The columns are made of pink, polished limestone, most of them dating from the original 4th-century Constantinian basilica.  There is also a vault in the eastern end, where the sanctuary is. The church features golden mosaics covering the side walls, which are now largely decayed. Trap doors in the present floor reveal sections of floor mosaics surviving from the original basilica. The mosaics feature complex geometric designs with birds, flowers and vine patterns, making a rich and elaborate carpet for Constantine’s church.

We stood in line for 3hours to get into the Grotto.

Lanterns Inside the Church of the Nativity

Lanterns Inside the Church of the Nativity

Church of St. Catherine

Church of St. Catherine

Church of St. CatherineWhile standing in line I wandered away from the group and went into the adjoining Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic Church. It was built in a more modern Gothic revival style. This is the church where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Certain customs still observed in this Midnight Mass predate Vatican II, must be maintained because the “status quo” (the customs, rights and duties of the various church authorities that have custody of the Holy Places) was legally fixed in 1852, under the Ottoman Empire.

 

When I wanted to get back to the group the connecting door was locked seeing as they were busy closing and getting ready for midnight mass! Luckily I found a guard who then helped me get back in.

Inside the Church of the Nativity

Inside the Church of the Nativity

We entered through a very low door, called the “Door of Humility.” We then went down a Staircase on the side of the Sanctuary that leads down to the Grotto.

Bethlehem candles

Candles at the entrance to the Grotto

Candles at the entrance to the Grotto

The Grotto of the Nativity is an underground cave located beneath the basilica, it enshrines the site where Jesus is said to have been born. The exact spot is marked beneath an altar by a 14-pointed Silver Star set into the marble floor and surrounded by silver lamps. This altar is denominationally neutral, although it features primarily Armenian Apostolic influences. Another altar in the Grotto, which is maintained by the Roman Catholics, marks the site where traditionally Mary laid the newborn Baby in the manger.

We were unfortunately rushed through a bit, and got held up because a very big lady bent down to kiss the Silver Star and then got stuck under the altar and it took two guards to pull her out of the little grotto again.

Unfortunately it started raining during dinner, it was pouring down and my shoes were not water proof. I bought a small umbrella but had to walk around with wet, cold feet the whole evening, my toes were freezing!

We walked down to see a part of the Israel Palestine wall with its graffiti; we only saw a small part of the wall as we couldn’t actually walk around much in the pouring rain. I got to see and photograph a Banksy original!!

Manger Square

Manger Square

I met 2 lovely Kiwi ladies who teach English in Cairo. I ended up chatting to them and spent the rest of the evening in their company. On our way back from the wall we sat down and had some mulled wine to warm up a bit. Luckily by then the rain had cleared up a bit so we headed down to Manger Square, a large paved courtyard in front of the Church. This is the site where crowds gather on Christmas Eve to sing Christmas carols in anticipation of the midnight services. We could watch the midnight service here on big screens, but unfortunately because of the rain there was no sound, a bit of a disappointment.

Standing right by the Barriers of Manger Square

Standing right by the Barriers of Manger Square

We were lucky enough to be right in the front when they set up the barriers in front of the church before the president arrived. I have never seen so many armed police and army guys standing around with their AK47’s.

When the president finally arrived it looked like chaos with all the police running around, but it was over quickly and the barriers were removed.

After midnight mass we all had some hot chocolate before heading back to the hostel.

This was definitely a very special and spiritual Christmas for me!