Holy sites beckon the faithful — and their digital cameras
We started the morning at Shepherd’s Fields (top image, below), where — according to the New Testament — the Angel of the Lord visited the shepherds to tell them of Jesus’ birth. Two millennia ago, the shepherds and also their animals spent their nights underground in caves and grottos in the soft limestone. The manger as it is usually depicted is therefore a much later European interpretation of where animals were kept. A hole in the ceiling let air and light in, and smoke out. A metal walkway down the side of the valley enables visitors to see some of these ancient grottos, many with tiny rooms that are now used as chapels for small groups of the faithful to pray or sing. Benches and altars (middle image) have been set up for these groups. On the valley rim is a domed church that we did not have time to visit.
We had breakfast at the nearby Golden Peak Hotel — buffet and chance to meet with some Palestinians involved in various social justice and peace movementsa nd various good works, and also tourist promotion efforts to bring more visitors to Palestine and the West Bank. Nidal Abu Zuluf, who advocates for non-violence as inspired by anti-Apartheid actions in South Africa (and of course, Mahatma Ghani in India and Dr. Martin Luther King in the US) is most impressive. Karios Palestine is a Christian Palestinian document expressing that approach effecting change and bringing about social justice and equality.
The people, who harbor hopes for better times to come, are very different from images of Palestinians we see on our news programs, which tend to report on the violent and the negative. After a decade of military occupation by the Israeli army, the construction high walls all over the landscape to contain Palestinians and the imposition of Jewish settlements in their midst, it is remarkable that anyone can remain positive and try to help their people. But some — many, in fact — do.
The exterior of the Church of the Nativity is not beauitful, so don’t expect something like the grand cathedrals of Europe. The hulking, undorned Byzantine structure has suffered from centuries of abuse that included assasult, neglect and renovations that were often undertaken for defensive reasons. A large doorway, for instance, was made narrower and lower, so that a horse and rider could not enter and also so that men had to bend down to get through and there heads lobbed off if they were unwelcome.
Inside, the atmosphere is less reverential than I remember from a visit during the Society of American Travel Writers convention in Israel some 25 years ago. But that was before digital cameras, which cause people to travel around looking at the world through the image display. I am as guilty as anyone and do it too. People dress more casually now, talk more and more loudly, and are in a greater hurry than they were then. I’m not religious, but then, I lit a candle to honor my Aunt Margaret, the only church-goer in my family. This time, the group zipped through the side room when the candles are now sold and I could not light one in her memory.
I saw a few robed monks and priests and a couple of nuns — far fewer propotionally now than then. A quarter of a century ago, the church seemed like a place of pilgrimage for the faithful. This time, I’m afraid that it felt more like something most tourists cross off their bucket lists.
The main church is cavernous, largely devoid of ancient ornamention but with icons, lots of silver and abundant lights and lanterns that characterize Eastern rite churches.
Under the Byzantine-style Orthodox portion of the double church is a grotto where Mary is believed to have given birth to the Baby Jesus. The spot, a silk/satin-draped niche (below), is marked with a plaque on the floor. Many people get down on hands and knees to touch or kiss the plaque, resulting in many photos of many backsides. Again, small rooms accommodate groups of pilgrims who sit on plastic chairs, praying or singing. A quarter of a century ago, I seem to remember a lot of lit candles and quieter contemplation. Not now.
St. Catherine’s Church, the immediaely adjacent Catholic church built in the 19th century, is somewhat Gothic in inspiration. It has a vaulted ceiling, high clerestory windows and wooden pews, more closely resembling many a Catholic church around the world. Someone is refinishing wood right now, so people were walking through, photographing and even praying to the sound of an electric sander and the smell of varnish. Most people passed though it on their way underground to older grottos, caves and chapels. The upper church and Manger Square are the places from which Christmas Eve Mass is telecast around the world
Underneath is the grotto where St. Hieronymus (St. Jerome) lived and was entombed until the Crusaders stole his bones and moved them elsewhere. He is credited with translating the Bible into Latin. He was said to have been hermit, but he had a housekeeper and her son in the gotto, so he was a hermit wtih at least minimal companionship — maybe companionship with privileges.
To be continued when I have time.