Bethlehem – Part 1

I love Bethlehem!!! …There I said it.

Jerusalem is fascinating and holy and people from everywhere come here but it’s also a city; busy, noisy and full of tension.

Traffic, light rail, The Holy Sepulchre and the Lutheran Redeemer bell tower

Bethlehem is a city and lots of people come through there but it doesn’t have that busy, noisy feeling of a city. It has the rhythm of a village. I’ve been there twice since I arrived in the Holy Lands and I’m sure I’ll be back a number of times before I go.  It’s only 7 kilometers to the south of Jerusalem.

There is much to say about Bethlehem, the home of Jesus’ nativity birth, but for today I just want to share some of the architectural beauty of the Church of the Nativity.

I’ve heard this Basilica, as it is sometimes called, described as gaudy and overdone. And I’ve heard much speculation about whether this is really the spot where Jesus was born. ‘I mean really, how can we be so certain?’ goes the rationalizing… and maybe we can’t know, maybe we don’t even need to know … exactly where. But I love the place, sure the decorating idea of, “if a little is good, a lot must be great” is a proven philosophy but to me the decoration and adornment speaks much more to the near eastern culture in which and of which it finds itself not to the proof of whether Jesus was born there or not. And I’m OK with following the tradition of this being the spot. If nothing else this “spot” is the oldest continuously operating church in the world, it was commissioned by Emperor Constantine around 326 AD. (Yes it’s been reworked a few times, but its still working…)

For me more than anything the church and the city is a place to go, to revere and to remember the start of a life and an event that changed the world and the hope, I believe, of the world forever. Thank you Jesus, thank you God!

Nativity Church

You can walk from Manger Square or…

— the steps from the nearest street…

you must enter through the door …. the opening has been made smaller through the ages … can you see 3 different door frames?…

The Door of Humility… maybe you’ve been through it a time or two as well?…

once inside you will have much to see… the lower Mosaic floor is from 4th Century Constantine construction…

Everyone wants to see where Jesus was Actually born so you go to the right and follow through this door…

You will find fabulous details…

Maybe even a service happening in the main cathedral….

But I didn’t quite make it to X marks the spot because if I understood the rumors correctly 600 Polish people where in town with their Arch Bishop and he was conducting a service in the Grotto of the Nativity so I decided to come back later…

… and then found that other rumors where true… the crowds will descend and make for a long wait… I think I’ll check it out next time…

Definitely next time…

Focusing on the Holy

What is Holy?

Seems like a good question for Holy Week in the Holy Lands…

Sure there are stories and realities of chaos, disagreement and fundamentalism around business, politics and religion. All you have to do is read a newspaper anywhere in the world to know that. Stories abound that emanate anything but holy.

But to so many, this is the Holy City; Holy City to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Different stories and not so different stories run through the beliefs and traditions of these three Abrahamic faiths.

I’ve been in this holy place for six days and despite what could feel rather un-Holy, I appreciate its holiness. There are things you could see and feel anywhere…

A cute kid leading a Palm Sunday procession

Running into a friend – Pastor Ladd

But a lot you can’t. You come to the Holy Lands as a Pilgrim to join in and be part of something larger and longer than yourself. To join in something that through the millennium has been destroyed, rebuilt, forgotten and refortified; to take a step in faith among the faithful and not so faithful, to just be and to walk where literally millions (if not billions) of fellow believers have walked before.

Palm Sunday – walking from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem

Palm Sunday – walking through the Lion’s gate into the Old City (Jerusalem)

This is the land where my faith, Christianity, as well as others were born. I can’t help but to think of this land somewhat like a parent or maybe better like an aunt or uncle to our faith, it (or they) might be eccentric and hard to understand but it is vital to the fact that we exist, it is full of stories and love and deserving of our attention and respect. Holy Lands – you have two months of my undivided attention.

While I am here I may come up with many unholy thoughts and words … so for now, this Holy Week, I want to focus on what makes this place particular, a testament, a pilgrimage destination and hence, Holy.

Looking up inside the church of The Holy Sepulchre.

Peeking in at the women’s side of the Western (wailing) wall.

A view of the Dome of the Rock.

South Africa – but a brief pause…

Cape Town, Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Stellenbosch, Johannesburg… SA you’ve shown me many sides of yourself. And you haven’t been bashful or reserved … for the most part you’ve unapologetically said, “This is us, this is who we are.”

These two months in SA introduced me to people, attitudes and beliefs as different from one another as different can be. It would be similar to putting together a picture of America by visiting New York City, Mobile (Alabama), El Paso (Texas), and Monterey, California. The food and language (if only the accent) change, the common stories, the culture, the weather, the topography, the worldviews … and often very largely the politics take on varied and different images, heroes and villains, mantras and foci … for life looks a little different depending on the vantage point you have. History, choices and opportunities deal different cards and cards dealt don’t necessarily feel very fair or make clear sense.

South Africa I am nowhere near figuring you out …

…so let’s just pause the conversation while I head up to Jerusalem. I’ll be there for a couple months. In the Holy Lands I will begin to experience both the sacred and the secular of a place that provokes many images as well … everything from majesty and triumph to division and fear.

So till next time SA…

May God continue to heal your wounds and bless your efforts to reconcile and find justice. May God bring enough to those who know only want. May God relieve those who burden themselves with hate. And may God bring wholeness to all your people.