We are now in the second week of Advent. This lit candle symbolizes Faith, reminding us of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.
When we travel to Israel we always make it a point to visit Bethlehem. Visiting Bethlehem has changed since early 2000’s, when the wall that separates the West Bank was erected. Many tourists do not want to bother with crossing the border due security issues. Believe it or not, some tourists visit Bethlehem because of the graffiti artwork on the wall. There are plenty of political messages, because this wall, which is not yet completed, is over 400 miles long. The most profound graffiti messages are found in larger cities like Bethlehem. The Walledoff Hotel is now a popular tourist site. Its popularity is due to its location in front of the graffiti artwork of Banksy, an artist and political activist who also happens to own the hotel.
Depending who you ask the wall is either a hindrance or a blessing. I know for a fact that it has hurt the the economy of the Palestinians, and separated families. To the Jews it has almost completely stopped the suicide bombing. It’s a paradoxical situation, and still no peace.
At the security checkpoint, if our tour guide is Jewish, he/she can only bring us to the border. A Palestinian guide must take over the tour in a different bus. We must have our passports in hand because several Israeli soldiers with really huge rifles get on the bus to make sure we are who we say we are.
There is no shortage of the visible Israeli soldiers. They are at almost every point, most of them being in their early twenties. Men serve for three years and young women are required to serve their country for two years. You will not see any Israeli police or Israeli army personnel in Bethlehem, (unless it’s a raid), and many times as I have been there, I have never witnessed any Jewish authorities in this area.
We visit Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, because the Church of the Nativity is the home of the original “Nativity.” This church was built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus. The Church of the Nativity is one the oldest functioning Christian churches in the world. It is by far one of the most interesting sites and a must see while visiting the Holy Land.
As you pass through the small opening to the main church, even I have to crouch to enter into this passage. This doorway was made small in order to prevent large animals from entering the church.
There is always a long wait, to go down narrow marble steps to reach the star where Jesus was born. Usually you come across rude foreigners that push their way through to get there sooner. I sometimes fall into this category, only because one of my biggest pet peeves is someone taking cuts in line, I stand by this principle. The only exception I will make occurs when the person taking the cuts suffers from unbearable body odor.
As a pilgrim, I experience the Church of the Nativity not only as holy, but with great reverence. Though we are only permitted to stay and pray a short period, we cherish these few minutes. If you are blessed, there is an area where you can sit and pray to the left of the Star, but is it rarely available. Last year my friend Jane and I sat and prayed until we were asked to leave. We could have stayed for hours.
According to an article from the National Catholic Register, (December 19 ,2016.) In 1950, Bethlehem, along with surrounding villages were 86% Christian. Now the population across the West Bank, Christians represent less than 2%.
St. Francis of Assisi was the first to introduce the Nativity scene into the world.
St. Francis had a special devotion to the Child Jesus. St. Francis was inspired after visiting the Holy Land and the humble stable, a Bethlehem cave. In the year 1223, with the permission from Pope Honorius III, on Christmas Eve, St. Francis set up a manger in the village of Grecio, Italy, with hay and two live animals. There St. Francis preached about “the Babe of Bethlehem.” St. Francis was so overcome by emotion that he could not say “Jesus.” So the first Nativity did not have Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, or wise men either, just a ox and an ass.
I love all Nativities, and in our home they are everywhere. I have some from Mexico City, Guadalajara, Spain, Bethlehem, and of course, Costco.
As we gaze upon the Nativity let us be mindful of Christmas, so that we can draw closer to the real gifts God has set aside for us. We all have special gifts because we serve a benevolent Father. This Christmas ask Him for your special gift.