Merry Christmas from Bethlehem!

Bethlehem

Bethlehem

Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains. It’s home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities, now about 40% of the population, but once around 85%. It’s a small city of about 25,000, with tourism as the main industry.

Besides being the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and the site of the tomb of Rachel. Rachel’s tomb, on the edge of town, attracts Jewish and Muslim pilgrims, but Bethlehem’s star attraction, by far, is the Church of Nativity in Manger Square, in the center of town.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The original church was built upon orders from the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena around the year 327. The emperor Justinian rebuilt the church a couple hundred years later, and that church still stands, the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land. Beneath the church is a cave believed to be the actual spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The earliest written accounts of Jesus being born in a cave date from the 2nd century, but the oral tradition is likely much older. Many houses in the area are built up against caves, which were used for storage and animal shelter.

The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Most scholars think not. Two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, place the nativity in Bethlehem, although the details differ. The other two Gospels, Mark and John, don’t address Jesus’ birth at all. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah would be descended from King David, and David was born and raised in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. It could be that the writers of Matthew and Luke symbolically placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in reference to that prophecy. Journalistic accuracy was not intended or expected.

Personally, I don’t think it matters where exactly Jesus was born, but I do find it interesting to think about the context in which the Gospels were written and their intended audiences. Although they carry an eternal message, the form that message takes tells us a lot about the world of the first Christians. Matthew cites the genealogy of Jesus back through David and ultimately to Abraham. That would have been meaningful to a Jewish audience. Luke’s genealogy goes right back to Adam to encompass all of humanity and he exults the newborn Jesus as savior of the whole world, not only of the Jews. Luke was writing for a Greek, gentile audience.

Getting to Bethlehem is easy, just a short drive from Jerusalem. Tourists pass through an Israeli check-point from Israel to the West Bank Palestinian Territories. Israelis are not allowed to enter, so if you’re on a guided tour, a Palestinian guide will meet you on the other side.

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is held on December 24-25 at the Roman Catholic St. Catherine’s, next door to the Church of Nativity. Tickets (no charge) are required to attend the service. Christmas is celebrated in Bethlehem on January 6-7 for the Greek, Coptic and Syrian Othodox Churches and on January 18-19 for the Armenian Orthodox Church.

3 Religious Sites in Jordan: Mt Nebo, Madaba, Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Mt. Nebo

Mt. Nebo

Everyone knows about Petra in Jordan; it’s the headliner, and for good reason. But Jordan is also home to some very important religious sites. It’s just across the Jordan River from Israel and very much part of the Holy Land.

Mt.Nebo is traditionally believed to be the site where Moses died and was buried. After wandering in the desert for 40 years, he was denied entrance into the Promised Land but he was allowed to look upon it from Mt.Nebo. As the story goes, Moses and the Israelites had been wandering in the desert for many years. It was hard on everyone. There was a great deal of kvetching and little gratitude, faith or loyalty among the Israelites. When he went out to get water for this mob of moaners, Moses was on his last nerve. “Fine,” he said, “we’ll get you your gosh darn water!” He struck a stone three times and water poured out. In that moment, Moses committed at least three sins and his fate was sealed. He failed in his responsibility as leader by losing his temper. He disobeyed the Lord by striking the stone rather than speaking to it as instructed. And, probably worst of all, he failed to properly credit the Lord for the miracle. His punishment was to never set foot in the Promised Land. It seems a harsh penalty. The poor guy left a life of royal luxury and accepted a thankless mission of extreme hardship. Why not give him some latitude, for pity’s sake? On the other hand, he fell short in his assignment of obedience to the Lord and leadership of the Israelites.

view from Mt. Nebo

view from Mt. Nebo

There’s plenty to ponder while standing on Mt.Nebo looking out over the Jordan Valley. If conditions are right, you can see Jericho and beyond to Jerusalem. Remains of a Byzantine church are incorporated into the modern church on site, which houses some very nice mosaics and the soaring serpentine cross sculpture at the edge of the summit seems to hang from the sky. It’s all very moving.

6th-century Holy Land map in Madaba

6th-century Holy Land map in Madaba

Just down the road about 5 miles is Madaba, famous for mosaics. They’re still excavating Byzantine remains all over town. The Basilica of St. George is the main attraction, where you can see the famous 6th-century map of the holy land in a mosaic floor.

the Jordan River at Bethany Beyond the Jordan

the Jordan River at Bethany Beyond the Jordan

possible (likely?) site of the baptism of Jesus, with remains of a Byzantine church

possible (likely?) site of the baptism of Jesus, with remains of a Byzantine church

About a 20 minute drive from Madaba at the very southern end of the Jordan River is Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site widely believed to be where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. There’s very strong archaeological evidence to support that belief. After the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, this border area had to be cleared of mines. Excavations began in 1996 and have uncovered Roman and Byzantine remains of baptismal pools, churches, pilgrim lodgings, hermit caves, a monastery and a prayer hall. This is also believed to be the site from which the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire.

I’m not at all religious but I was affected by the serenity of this place. Just thinking about it now is calming. My secular being has been similarly moved to the core at Mt. Nebo, Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall… Is there some inherent power in these places that is deeper than their associated spiritual traditions? Or does centuries-of-pilgrim-ardor hang so thick that even casual visitors are swept up in it? Or is it just the suggestion of emotional response that makes it so?

While these are interesting questions to consider, perhaps why we respond the way we do is far less important than the response itself. Aspire to faith in experience and acceptance of the unexplained. Ultimately, no matter our system of belief, the source of the feelings inspired by these places is the same for all of us. What differs is how we explain those feelings.

Visit Mt. Nebo, Madaba and Bethany Beyond the Jordan and feel for yourself: www.yallatours.com/jordan