From the Psalter:

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 122:1-2 (BCP Version) – June 30, 2014)

Our feet left Jerusalem today and went to Bethlehem, and what a day of varied impressions. We began in Manger Square (which is more like a parking lot than a town square) with Iyad’s presentation on the history of the Church of the Nativity, then we entered the building. It is currently under restoration, so there is scaffolding everywhere! The pillars in the nave are wrapped in cloth and banded with wood to protect them (apparently they are painted). Electric construction lighting hangs from the ceiling. The place looks like (and is) a construction zone.

Yet in the midst of this the various denominations (the Greeks, Latins, and Armenians share the space) go about their daily round of services and devotions. As we were entering, the Greeks were completing their worship in the upper church (ground floor, above the crypt of the Nativity). We were led passed them and into the adjoining more modern Church of St. Catherine, the local Franciscan (Roman Catholic) parish. Mass was just being completed there, as well.

On the right side of the Nave is a stairway leading down to some crypts adjacent to the crypt of the Nativity. Here it is said that St. Jerome translated the Vulgate (Latin) version of the scriptures. Here, also, is a crypt where the bones of several infants were found and tradition teaches the infants killed in the slaughter of the Holy Innocents were buried. There is a shrine to St. Jerome, another to the Holy Innocents, and a chapel of the Nativity whose backwall is the common wall to the crypt of the Nativity.

We gathered in this chapel, read the story of the Lord’s birth, sang What Child Is This? and O Little Town of Bethlehem. As we were finishing, the Greeks were completing their time in the crypt (down the tunnel from our chapel) and the sound of the bells (jingle bells) on the Greek thurible added to the “Christmas feel” of what we had just done.

Afterward, we went back up to St. Catherine’s where we waited for the Franciscans to begin their time in the crypt. We had been invited to participate in their Eucharist, which we believed would be in either English or Italian. As it turned out, it was in Spanish. Two young Mexican deacons were ordained yesterday and were serving their first Mass today. A group of pilgrims from Mexico (probably family members or members of their home parishes) were on hand. It was a lovely service and it was a privilege to receive communion in the Crypt, as it was to venerate the star over the place of Christ’s birth. But our few minutes of singing together in the side chapel next door was more meaningful for me.

As we left the Church, the Armenians were getting ready for their turn in the Crypt and I made note the beautiful, exceptionally celtic carving on the doors of their sacristy. Fr. Keith Owen said, “Those Celts! They got everywhere!” Indeed.

After the Mass, we traveled to another part of Bethlehem to do some souvenir shopping at a store known to our guide. (Evie and I bought only a few olive wood items. The sales staff were exceptionally pushy and while I might have bought something, my obstinate contrariness kicks in when I’m being pressured so they lost a sale. But, hey, as we keep saying, “It’s the middle east.”) The shop is in a part of the city very much affected by the Israeli security barrier; it is very much “in your face” in this section. One house (which was reported on by 60 Minutes in 2013 is almost completely surrounded by the wall!

We walked along the wall for about half a mile and really got a feel for its impact on the lives of the people of Bethlehem. I took several pictures of posters and grafitti that have been put on barricade.

After that, we drove to Beit Sahour (“House of the Angel”) a city about two miles from Bethlehem where the Shepherd’s Field (one of them, anyway) is located. There we had a great lunch of beef and chicken kabobs, and then walked to the Shepherd’s Field.

Another small Barluzzi church is located there – with a great statue of an angel over the door. We sat around the altar in the church and sang Angels We Have Heard on High and O Little Town of Bethlehem. Then we went down the hill to an archaeological excavation (on the Shepherd’s Field property) of some caves which were probably inhabited in the First Century. The cave opened to the public really gives a great sense of what the cave where Jesus was born would have been like. (He wasn’t born in an “inn” despite centuries of mistranslation of the Greek word kataluma.)

After Beit Sahour, we went to Ein Karem (“Vineyard Spring”) where it is believed that John the Baptist’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, lived. Another Barluzzi church is found here commemorating the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here, we hiked up the hill to the church, saw its lovely murals, statuary, and other objects. On the way back down, we stopped at a gelateria and got a dish or cone of gelato (Italian ice cream). I had Belgian chocolate and berries – it was wonderful!

It was an exceptionally full day! Psalm 122 (one of the several morning psalms for today) concludes:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.

Peace be within your walls
and quietness within your towers.

For my brethren and companions’ sake,
I pray for your prosperity.

Because of the house of the LORD our God, *
I will seek to do you good.”

(vv. 6-9; BCP Version)

The biggest impression of the day was, as it has been on other days, not the religious sites, but the political sights: the wall, the grafitti on it, the posters put there by the Wall Museum, the disruption of people’s lives, the separation of famers from their fields and orchards, the utter contempt of Israel for the Palestinian Arabs that it represents. How can there ever be peace when people are treated like this? I have spent the day with 17 other good Christian people trying to follow the Prince of Peace in a land torn by conflict. I have no answers. I have only prayers. I will pray for the peace of Jerusalem!


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.