Day 5 of the Catholic Digest Holy Land Pilgrimage with Steve and Janet Ray from the Footprints of God pilgrimages.
Today we traveled to Bethlehem. I expected to see the birthplace of Jesus and then visit the cute little town where it is Christmas all year round. As we traveled up the road, I saw what I thought were walls of a prison, but then our guide explained that the seven by seven miles of Bethlehem are boarded up with huge concrete walls.
It reminded me of the Berlin Wall. I had no idea.
Citizens of Bethlehem are unable to leave the town unless they move out of the city or obtain a permit, which is very hard to get.
Am I the only American who didn’t know that there are huge concrete walls that surround the birthplace of our Savior?
I don’t say this to sadden you, but to help us remember how important it is for Christians to know their history, to pay attention to what is going on in the world right now (seeking truth beyond what you hear from the local media) and to fight for our faith that we know is true. There are more politics to those concrete walls than I have room to discuss right now, but as the pilgrims entered through the guarded gates, we knew that our fellow Christians needed help.
All week our local guide, Amer, told us to wait to shop until we reached Bethlehem because the Christians in Bethlehem need our help. Our group had an opportunity to visit a store where our purchase would help 64 Christian families in the occupied town of Bethlehem. This shop specialized in hand-carved olive wood sculptures. We even had an opportunity to see the factory where they take the raw olive wood and shape it into the beautiful crosses and figurines that we see in the store.
Next we traveled to the Church of the Angels in Shepherd’s Field and had Mass inside the cave where the shepherds heard the announcement of the birth of Jesus. The readings of the Mass were from Christmas day. We sang Christmas carols and Fr. Frans Berkhout greeted us with a joyous, Merry Christmas!
Fr. Berkhout explained that the shepherds and the Magi play an important role in our Catholic faith. God directly reveals himself to the shepherds when the angels announced the birth of the savior. The angels heralded the good news and the shepherds rushed down, with faith, to see the savior.
On the other hand, the three kings used science and reason to follow the star to find the king foretold in Isaiah.
God wants us to worship with both faith and reason. Faith and reason worked harmoniously together to bring us to the little town of Bethlehem to know, love, and serve the Prince of Peace. May that small child, born 2000 years ago bring peace to his native land.
After we visited the place where Jesus’ birth was announced we waited in line to visit the Church of the Nativity, which is shared by the Roman Catholics, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox.
The place of Jesus birth is marked with a 14-point star. Pilgrims can kneel below the altar and kiss the place where Mary gave birth to our Savior. We also had the opportunity to visit the church of Saint Catherine of Sienna and visit the caves where St. Jerome translated the Bible.
After our day visiting the holy sites, we went to a Bethlehem restaurant for dinner and had the best lamb dinner I have ever tasted. I had the privilege to sit with 86-year-old, Raji Khoury of Shepherd Tours. The first thing Raji told us is that he taught Steve Ray everything he knows.
We had the opportunity to ask Raji about his experiences as a Palestinian Christian, a perspective that you would not get from the mainstream media. Raji explained that Christians are the ones that are suffering the most. He said, “we are between two hammers.” The population of Christians in the Holy Land is less than two percent. When we asked him what will be the solution between the Jews and the Muslims, he said that the solution won’t be resolved until Jesus comes again.
As we left the city walls, I gazed upon the graffiti that had messages pleading for the walls to come down. One image that struck me, was an image of a Christmas tree with cement walls up around it.
Let us pray to the “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9: 1-6) that his kingdom will be forever peaceful both now and forever.