Monday morning started early because we wanted to visit the Church of the Nativity before our 10:00 appointment at Dar Al-Kalima College. We arrived at the church – one of the oldest on earth, dating from the 4th century – in time to see a couple of Orthodox priests heading down into the crypt below the sanctuary, complete with swinging incense, to worship in the place where (legend has it) Jesus was born. (The phrase “here, or near here” has become a favorite in our group; when we do the count of our group before leaving, I’ve taken to say we have all, or nearly all, of the group members…close enough:))
Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, had the first Church of the Nativity built in this place around the year 333, to commemorate what was believed to be the cave where Jesus was born. It has gone through multiple renovations and restorations in the centuries since, including when the Crusaders controlled the region, beginning in 1099. They built a low entrance into the building, still in use today, that would not allow horses or camels to enter. We all had to bend low to enter the sanctuary.
We marveled at the restored mosaics in the floor and on the walls. They positively sparkled. The renovation work is ongoing, until 2020, but already it has made a huge difference in the beauty of the building—what was barely visible and blackened with soot and age now is bright and colorful.
Next door we entered the church of St. Catherine. A mass was in process; we stood and listened to the singing. The exquisite art piece depicting David being selected over his brothers by Samuel was stunning.
We walked downhill – the Holy Land is full of hills! – to our bus and off we went to Dar Al-Kalima, the college started by Mitri Raheb as part of the ministry of our partner church in Bethlehem, Christmas Lutheran. Dr. Nuha Khoury, Academic Dean, met with us to describe the school and its work. It has around 400 students, mostly Muslim. They focus on the arts and tourism, with an emphasis on employment, post-graduation. It’s an impressive educational program, with an expansive vision. They are working to create leaders for the Palestine that will one day emerge from the tensions of today.
Our lunch was prepared and served by students in the culinary arts programs, led by Baseem, the chef who heads the program (and who did a cooking demonstration at Westminster as part of Windows into Palestine in May 2018). Delicious! Afterwards we stood outside in the warm sun, looking out over the hills of Bethlehem, enjoying fresh pound cake and coffee. We were pleased to see the development of the program, as Westminster had made a loan for the construction of the very facility in which we ate (the loan is now being paid back).
Next on the agenda was Herodian, the desert palace built by Herod in the first century. He was quite the builder, and we have become familiar with his architectural excess. Herod had expensive tastes. He built the palace on Masada. He rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. He built everywhere. Herodian is the only of his architectural accomplishments named for him because he chose it as his burial site.
The site was taken over by Jewish rebels during the Bar Kokbah revolt in the second century. The rebels destroyed much of the building done by Herod and built a synagogue and series of tunnels to evade escape and bring water into their camp undetected.
Today it’s a remarkable archaeological site. We saw the remains of the palace, the synagogue, the burial area, and the theater. The hill on which Herodian is located is now surrounded by Israeli Jewish settlements (this is Palestinian land in the West Bank).
Our final stop of the day was Shepherds Field, in the village of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. We gathered in an old cave of the sort in which the shepherds of old would have sheltered with their sheep on a cold night. There we sang and prayed.
We also visited the small chapel built nearby. The acoustics were astonishing. We sang a Taizé song together and marveled at the 4-5 second echo. As were leaving a group of Nigerian pilgrims entered. We lingered, expecting they, too, would sing. They did, and it nearly lifted the roof of the chapel. They left the building singing and dancing in a moving line of joyful worship.
Back to the hotel in Bethlehem for dinner and well-deserved rest.