After breakfast, we began our morning tracing the journey to Bethlehem. A week ago, we prayed at the Basilica of the Annunciation. Now we walked up a lovely hill to the place where Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth.
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. Luke 1.38-40
Our time at The Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, a lovely neighborhood 10 minutes from Old Jerusalem, was a peaceful reminder that God used a family and a friendship to assist an older first-time mother in her third trimester and to help prepare a young teenage girl to deliver and raise the Savior of the world.
We visited the Church of St. John the Baptist, then drove back to the West Bank.
A fifteen minute drive outside Jerusalem, Bethlehem is a much larger town than it was in the Lord’s Day. We passed through several security checkpoints, then arrived at Shepherd’s Field.
Tradition holds that this is the place where the angels spoke to the shepherds on the night shift, announcing the birth of the Savior. We prayed and sang ‘Silent Night’ in a lovely chapel, our voices beautifully resonating.
From there we traveled to the Basilica of the Nativity.
So much happened there.
The Basilica is a large church built over the cave where we believe Mary gave birth to Jesus. After entering through a small door, created to prohibit horses from entering the building, we entered a grand but dimly lit nave.
Originally built at the direction of Helena, the devout mother of Emperor Constantine, who chose the site based on the best information available to her in A.D. 327, the Church is jointly administered by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic Churches. Each has ‘rights’, or control over different parts of the church building.
The Greek Orthodox Church controls access to the grotto – the cave in which Jesus was born. Thankfully, there were only two groups in front of us – a Russian Orthodox group and a Catholic group. We were told that we could not sing, but the Orthodox group was given permission to sing hymns of devotion before entering the small room which houses the cave where Christ was born.
The Russians enthusiastically sang four beautiful hymns and earnestly prayed. When they finished, and began to enter the cave, the Catholic group began to sing. They were abruptly rebuked by a security guard and a Greek Orthodox priest. ‘Not you!’ he said.
I will never forget that moment. A sad, deeply disappointing moment.
Many of us continued to pray, adding the Catholics to our intercessions. Thankfully, 20 minutes later, we descended the 8 worn stairs and entered through the low-hanging Door of Humility into the cave where Christ was born. Even with the drama that preceded our entrance, it was powerful.
It was a small space used for keeping animals. Low ceiling. Dark. Cramped.
The sound of a delivery would have reverberated. It is likely the guests at the inn would have heard Mary’s cries as Jesus entered into the world.
We laid our hands on the cave, prayed quietly, and left the grotto.
A short time later, we were able to pray as a group in another section of the Basilica, the Chapel of St. Jerome. It was here that Jerome, one of the greatest early leaders in the church, translated the Bible. A tremendously important achievement. The Lord stirred mightily amongst us in that chapel.
Deeply affected by the day, we returned to our hotel for some free time. Some crossed the street and entered the market in Old Jerusalem. Some rested. And a group of us made our way to the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Today marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Our journey to the Western Wall through Old Jerusalem is another story, but the Wall was unforgettable. Built by Herod the Great in the late- 1st Century B.C., the wall is one of the few pieces of the Temple not destroyed by Roman Emperor Titus in A.D. 70.
The wall is long and high. Hundreds of orthodox Jews from different sects and various parts of the world faced the wall in earnest prayer.
The wall is segregated. A smaller section for women to the right. A much larger one for men to the left. Some with scrolls, some with phylacteries on their heads – all praying. Some singing. Many quite loudly.
We left the wall and made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
More on that tomorrow.
What a day. An amazing day.