Our Last day of touring Israel was a short one, because it ended with an hour ride to Tel Aviv and they recommended that we arrive 3 hours before ours flight, since security is pretty extensive at the Israeli airport.
We started out early for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, partly to beat the crowds, and partly because it was a Friday during Ramadan, which meant more traffic. Bethlehem is in the West Bank in Area A. (There are three types of administrative areas in the West Bank: Area A is administered solely by the Palestinian Authority and Israelis are not permitted in. This includes most of the cities (Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho, etc.). Area B is administered by the Palestinian Authority, but Israelis can come in and out freely. Area C (60%) is administered by Israel.) Yes, the issues in Israel/Palestine are complex, and the region is a flashpoint.
(Spoiler alert – the site of Jesus’ birth is not quite what you see on the Christmas cards). In Minnesota as you drive around, you are generally surrounded by trees. Not so in Israel. There’s just not a lot of wood. Fruit trees and olive trees are about all you see. Houses today are usually built of limestone block or concrete. In the first century, they would have been two rooms built of stone or carved out like a cave, with a third room to house the animals at night. In Luke, where we read, “she laid him in a manger because there was no room at the inn,” the word translated here as “inn” is translated everywhere else as “guest room”. Perhaps Mary and Joseph were staying with relatives, and the guest room was already claimed. Because she wanted some privacy, she went out to the room where the animals were kept. At any rate, the site that has been revered as the site of Christ’s birth since the 1st century, looks like a cave. By the 4th century a Greek Orthodox Church was built on top of the cave, and a Roman Catholic Church next to that. (Those Byzantines built churches on everything!!). We were able to go down to the cave, and kneel where “she laid him in a manger,” then we explored the rest of the cave, that tradition holds was the house.
Next came a stop at Shepherd’s Field, a convent built in the hills above Bethlehem, where we held our closing worship service. We finished the time in Bethlehem having lunch with some members of the local Lutheran church. Brian and I sat with two amazing young adults: Salome, who is a Fulbright scholar, beginning a Masters in Media Studies in Connecticut this summer, and Elias, who is a Junior at the University in Palestine. Both are Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank. Their lives are filled with all the indignities of an unequal system. (For example, while Israelis can cross easily in and out of the West Bank and are only restricted from the Area A cities, Palestinians cannot go into Israel without a pass, cannot drive across the border (they have to walk), and they can’t use the closest airport (Tel Aviv). I asked Salome what she saw as the future for her people. She replied, “People always ask me that. And I don’t know what to say. I used to be hopeful, but now I think we’re just tired and frustrated. (It’s interesting that as she was saying that, three Palestinian youth were shooting at Israeli police in Jerusalem.)
Then it was off to the airport. It has been an incredible trip! We learned so much about the strengths and struggles of both ancient and modern Israel. Three great religions, many great cultures, a mix of ancient traditions and modern innovations, all struggling to be together on the same small piece of land. I’ll be thinking about this for a long time ———-
51 minutes til we land in the Twin Cities!!!