Today we made our way from Galilee to Bethlehem. We began by stopping at two parks with Roman ruins. The first was a coliseum, where it is said that Romans fed Jews and Christians to wild animals. The second, called Bet She’an National Park, represented an entire city, whose impressive ruins dated from the Roman and Byzantine periods.
We especially enjoyed walking in the bathhouse area, which was a combination of a sauna, gym, massage parlor, lecture hall—and, oh yeah—toilet. The park designers had a sense of humor, as demonstrated by a series of signs describing the typical visit to a bath house, including this one.
This park also has biblical significance.
I love looking at Roman ruins in general, but this park was especially fun because you could climb all over them. As you can tell from the video, my friends and I treated it like jungle gym.
We drove to Bethlehem via the West Bank, which Israel captured in 1967 and is now under Palestinian jurisdiction. The following photo is of a flock of goats and sheep by the side of the road. The boy in the picture enjoyed our attention.
Bethlehem itself is divided by a wall separating Israel from the Palestinians. There is deep moral ambiguity here: Palestinians are unable to cross over to the more prosperous Israeli side for employment, and as a result, their side is economically depressed. On the other hand, suicide bombing—which precipitated the building of the wall—is down 90 percent since the wall’s construction.
We drove through the checkpoint and ate lunch and shopped on the Palestinian side. Artisans in Bethlehem are famous for olive woodworking, and their gift shops demonstrate this. In addition to the inevitably tacky tchotchkes, these shops include some beautiful handcrafted nativity scenes and other religious objects, all made of olive wood.
My favorite item, which I couldn’t begin to afford, was a large and intricate, three-dimensional Last Supper scene. What most impressed me was that, unlike da Vinci’s painting, Jesus and his disciples were properly reclining around a table—as was the custom of people in the ancient Near East. Nice detail!
From there, we visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We weren’t the only people with this idea, believe it or not… The church, jointly managed by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox churches, sits atop a cave featuring the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. Pilgrims line up to touch the purported stone on which Jesus was born and see the purported place of his manger.
Color me skeptical. It’s very possible Jesus was born in a cave–people in Israel often lived in caves (or grottoes). So this at least might be very similar to the place in which Jesus was born. Or he could have been born in a barn beside or beneath a modest stone house. No one knows. This particular site became part of the tradition long after any eyewitnesses could verify it.
I simply don’t know how to suspend my disbelief in this regard.
But even if it were the actual place, I don’t understand venerating it in this manner. I wish I could feel some sense of awe and spiritual power from the experience of touching the floor of a cave, but I can’t. I am thoroughly Protestant in this regard. As is often the case, these sorts of activities make me feel like an outsider looking in.
Is there something wrong with me?
I’m not an iconoclast. I understand the importance of engaging all the senses in worship. I understand that objects can facilitate prayer and worship without becoming idolatrous—even statues and icons, which my particular Christian tradition doesn’t use. I often pray using Anglican prayer beads because they help me center myself in prayer.
There is a theological issue at stake in the question. After all, I believe strongly that through his Holy Spirit, Jesus is as present with me now—and wherever I am—as he is in this particular church or in that particular cave. Yet the existence of this very impressive church and all the pilgrims who flock to it seem to say otherwise.
I don’t know what I would find in this place that I wouldn’t find through an ordinary worship service or through the sacraments or through preaching and reading the Word. Tell me how touching a rock offers more than these ordinary means of grace?
But maybe it’s just the feeling that I’m an outsider to this tradition—intruding in a place that doesn’t belong to me.
Many of my fellow clergy here with me don’t feel that way. In fact, one of them said that she had another “we-are-the-world” moment during the visit to this church. In the main sanctuary, Greek Orthodox Christians were celebrating the Divine Liturgy in Greek. In a downstairs chapel, Brazilian Catholics were celebrating a folk Mass in Portuguese. Meanwhile, in the room where the birth site is located, a group of fellow evangelical Christians were reading scripture and singing “Silent Night” in German.
If it brings Christians together like this, maybe that’s enough reason for all the fuss?
I enjoyed visiting the Shepherd’s Field, a place near Bethlehem where the angels are said to have announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds. There’s a nearby cave in which shepherds would bring their flocks to escape from inclement weather.
It so happens that today we had inclement weather. It was an unfavorable combination of wet and cold, with strong, gusty winds. When we went inside the cave for scripture reading and singing, we deeply appreciated the comfort that the cave afforded the shepherds so long ago!