In the morning we went to Christ Church in the Old City, apparently the oldest protestant church in the middle east.
We headed out to Bethlehem after that. That meant walking through the old city over to the bus station by the Damascus Gate.
The Arab busses run out to Bethlehem – as Jewish Israelis are actually forbidden from entering the Palestinian Authority areas. Well – it turns out there are three levels of occupied Palestine: Area C – where the government of Israel has management and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF – their army) controls security; Area B where the Palestinians have control, but the IDF has security, and Area A – where the Palestinians have both control and security. Bethlehem falls into the 3% of the West Bank that is Area A- meaning there is a fence around it, with military guards and passport control to make sure that no one is going in or out that is not supposed to. There were signs as you enter pointing out that entering Area A for Israeli citizens is “forbidden, dangerous, and illegal”
Obviously the big draw for this city is its status as the birthplace of Jesus.
The traditional site associated with Jesus birth is (of course) covered with an old church built overtop of it. Well more of a Byzantine basilica or something.
This is the door to enter the Church of Nativity. There used to be a regular sized door (you can still see it in the stone work) but at some point in the door was significantly reduced to make it impossible to enter on horseback (as the building had been fought over for centuries). As a result, to enter the building now, it almost feels like going into a cave, as you have to stoop over (and try not to hit the forehead of the baby on your back right into the rock. try…at least). It’s called the Door of Humility as you have to bend over – similar to how one has to lower themselves to submit to Christ.
As almost all of the sites associated with the life of Jesus have been claimed as “holy places” by different groups over the centuries, there are plenty of churches, monuments, and other places that really border on shrines. Also, since many of the chuches who were quick to stake their claim centuries ago are some of the traditions that really love ceremony, and decked-out churches, lots of candles, and gold…old-school-church-bling. The other thing you notice is that there is for many visitors what appears to go much beyond interest or even reverence for these places – they honestly believe that these places really are holy. You see a lot of touching of stones, and kissing floors, and bowing before things- and a lot of people for whom praying in that particular spot obviously means much more than praying somewhere else. For us – pretty weird stuff. So after seeing many instance of that – we were a little curious what Micah was doing when he was kneeling down front and centre in the cave below the Church of the Nativity, right in the center of all the action. He was there for a while, and a pretty big group of what were I think Russians were filling through (as a group of Germans were singing Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht behind us). Many of these women would bend over beside Micah and cross-themselves, pray, kiss the stone floor etc.
After a bit, we came up to the main floor again (most Biblical archeology agrees that the stable Jesus was born in was likely a cave, hence the ‘grotto’ in the basement of this church) We read the account of the first Christmas from the book of Luke all together. Then Susan asked Micah what he was doing. “I was just praying” he said. When asked what about, he responded “I was just thanking God that He sent his son to earth to pay for our sins”
After the church we tried to find a place to eat – and ended up walking for a while before we found a little hole-in-the-wall falafel place. The menu was all in Arabic but the guy working there was super friendly and not only supplied our tribe with a great lunch, he also pointed us in the right direction to catch our bus back to Jerusalem.
On the way back from Palestinian Territory we had to go through an Israeli military check-point. It was interesting how little concern they had for us, and how much time they spent looking at papers and passports of the young Arab guys behind us. MIcah & Josh were sitting behind us, and when the Israeli soldiers were examining the papers of the guys in the row behind them, there was the butt of an automatic weapon basically right in Micah’s face. Tried to sneak a photo on my phone – but wasn’t perhaps the best time.
We made our way back to our house eventually, counted 8 kids and considered day 3 to be a success.