Saturday, June 2, 2012

Holy Lands Day 23, June 1: Tale of two kings

Disclaimer: my blog contains personal observations and the opinions, typos, and errors are mine alone. (The guides and tour leaders know their stuff.)

The scripture on the bus is Luke 2:8 - the story of the shepherds. Today we're off to Herodium and Bethlehem. Bethlehem lies in the West Bank (formerly Jordan), a 20 minute ride and checkpoint search outside Jerusalem. We have to take our passports in case we are asked for them on our way home.

15' pillar in front of a cave
at Herodium
Herod the Great removed the top of a nearby mountain to build up his homestead of Herodium, which dominates the landscape. Herod loved the Roman lifestyle. There's a swimming pool in lower Herodium at the foot of the mountain, and his palace above contained baths, a large eating room (used by first revolt Jews as their synagogue), a theatre with a private royal box, and other fantastical luxuries.

When the Magi from the East came to see Herod, they would have visited him here, within eyesight of Bethlehem. Marc contrasts the two kings - the one with all the wealth possible for a human yet a temporal kingdom, and the other born in simplicity and ordinariness yet with an eternal kingdom. Herod killed his own wives and children who threatened his power. He would have had no qualms about killing all the firstborns in the region. His kingdom lies in rubble. The true king arrived in the valley below. Later, this Jesus would threaten the power of the corrupt priesthood.

Some young Arab men are shooting targets in the valley below. The pop-pop of their guns punctuates Marc's lecture.

Ilan shows us the cisterns build into the hillside. After Herod, in 66-70 AD (1st Jewish revolt), Jews protected themselves in the tunnels. They had water access but it's not clear it there was a fight at this location. In the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-35 AD (2nd Jewish revolt), 60 years after the destruction of the temple, more tunnels were dug to protect them from Adrian "the Bonecrusher".

Ilan and Avi have to stay behind: cars with the Palestinian tour guides arrive and they are whisked back to Jerusalem. Ashraf is our new tour guide. He introduces himself as a Christian born in Bethlehem. He says most Christians in the Holy Land (which is only 2% Christian) live here - 25% of the town is Christian, down from 49% in 2000. Most had to migrate elsewhere because Christians work in the tourist industry, which was devastated by the Palestinian intifada or uprising of 2000-2005.

The guide points out the Field of the Shepherds. Apparently sheep from these hills were designated for temple sacrifice. Their feet were wrapped in swaddling cloths to prevent them from touching the ground and to keep their hooves and fun clean for the temple. These shepherd would have had expectations of the Messiah. "When Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes, he is being prepared for sacrifice in Jerusalem." Bethlehem is 2 miles from the fields.

Window grill in rental house, Bethlehem
We begin our Bethlehem trip with a visit to a souvenir shop where the proprietor explains that Christians make their living by creating and selling tourist items. Each village family specializes in producing 2-3 items, carving olive wood or mother of pearl. The shop is full of the beautiful and the kitchy. I find a nice rosary and bracelet. One of the icons catches my eye: at $750, it's out of reach. Across the street, a house for rent needs renovation. The yard is cluttered and the windows dusty.

The Church of the Nativity is up a short hill. Hills look shorter in the city: there's a lot of tourist traffic but no one seems to be frequenting the shops on our way up to the church.

We have to duck through a 4' entry door used to keep animals out. Muslim loudspeakers amplify the drones of prayers and announcements from the top of the mosque's minaret. Wherever Arabs built their mosques, they made sure their building was higher than the churches - and preferably nearby to show the superiority of their religion over others.

A partial mosaic on the walls is full of dirt and grit. The church is clean where pilgrims have rubbed the pillars, but the icons and brasswork and other paintings are black with age and dirt. The first church at the site was sponsored by Constantine's mother and opened in 333 AD. In 384, Jerome translated the scriptures into Latin in the monastery of Bethlehem. During the Samaritan revolt, the church was burned down in 529, and rebuilt in 568 by Justinian I. We can hardly hear the quiet voice of the female tour guide from the Blue Bus. If she turns to face the other way, her voice is lost in the chatter of our group and others.

Lamp in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Most of the time, I can't hear so I sketch one of the dozens of candle lamps overhead before shuffling forward. The icons, blackened though they are, are marvelous. I've only seen them in calendars and books before. W takes photos.

I catch that this is the only church in the world that Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenians share. Each has parts of the structure and holds services. The RC wing is shut: apparently annual Christmas broadcasts originate there. Maybe I'll watch the program to see what I missed.

Finally we descend into the lower church, where pilgrims kneel and kiss the ground at a big metal star, supposedly the place of Jesus' birth, and at a stone slab 10 feet away, where the manger was supposed to be. "You can touch the top of the cave, which has been maintained intact," the guide points upward to a rough and blackened stone ceiling. I take a close look at the 14-point star "of birthplace," which indicates the 14 generations of Jesus. I don't catch where the generations start and end. David's one marker; perhaps the exile is another?

Lunch is at St. George's Restaurant near the church. Our meal starts with 5 or 6 salads, humus, and baba ghanoush. The main course is lamb and chicken kabobs - oh yum - W trades me his lamb for my chicken. Superb lamby.

On the way back to the bus, W buys a Stars and Bucks mug for a friend who requested Starbucks memorabilia. There is no Starbucks in Israel. They have Aroma Cafe, hands-down better than anything Starbucks offers, including fresh bread, sandwiches, pastries, and salads. Oh, and killer coffee and other drinks.

Once we leave Bethlehem, the tour guide points our the traditional grave of Jacob's Rachel, behind a 20' high concrete wall topped by razor wire. Good graffiti on the wall though. The tour guides disappear, and we're off the Old City.

St. James Cathedral, Armenian
We have free time until the bus will pick us up in 2 hours. W and I wander into the Armenian Cathedral of St. James and mass at 3. "Oh look," says W as the monks trail in. "Darth!" From the back, the hooded monk looks like a Star Wars character. Tourist groups come and go, their squeaky shoes interrupting the reading and male antiphonal choirs. "Stand. Reading John!" says the reader, beginning to sing from scripture. Like the Orthodox services, we stand during the service, a constant dialogue between men in various parts of the front of the church. We occasionally sit on benches around the exterior.

The building itself is unusual to our eyes. The concrete mosaics on the floors are covered with 10 big rugs. Blue and white tile is wrapped around the lower walls and supporting pillars. Dozens and dozens of brass lanterns and 3 huge crystal candle chandeliers (4'X7' each?) hang from the ceiling. The smell of incense fills the air as the censor is swung back and fort. The paintings on upper pillars and walls are dark with age and grime. In Bethlethem, the candleholder glass atop the brass lamps was red. Here the glass is red, green, blue, or yellow.

Shrine of St. James (through the
silver doors)
After a while, I notice women entering a side shrine, so I follow. They're kneeling, kissing a metal-rimmed hole in the ground, and lighting prayer candles. Apparently the head of James is buried here.

As we leave, I read that the grave in the courtyard belongs to one Father Abraham who died in 1192 AD. Jerusalem makes Britain feel young.

We wander the Armenian, Jewish, and Arabic quarters. Parts of the Muslim sections are blocked by police: on Muslim holy days, only Muslims can go near their buildings. No problem.

We head up to the Christian quarter. I buy a few things - except that W has forgotten his credit card in Bethlehem. He checks his pockets and discusses the loss, looking for receipts as to when he left it. After a half hour of calls and talking between W and the shop workers, the boss of the shop (Amy and Marc's friend) comes by and asks his shop assistant to take W to Bethlehem to retrieve the card. W pays a bit above gas, and has a harrowing, successful ride with an enthusiastic, 20-something driver. Enough said. We've watched Shimon dodging similar racers in our tour bus!

I head back with the rest of the tour group and am at the hotel by 6. W arrives shortly after. He didn't leave me any money so I can't pick up fresh bread for tomorrow's lunch. We relax until the final Vespers of this trip. It's W's turn to lead worship and he chooses to spread his time between four others, using the acronym ACTS as the format for worship and prayer. 

After a brief introduction, I lead the time of adoration, asking participants to speak out God's names and meditate on how he has met us on this trip. A Vanguard prof Dr. Douglas Degelman reads the story of the prodigal son and asks us to share our prayers of confession. Next, Amy Turnage (the tour's administrative chief, mom extraordinaire, an artist, and Marc's wife) invites us to call out thanksgiving to God for experiences on this trip. Finally, Timothy Cruz (a recently ordained student from Zion University) leads us in supplication. We pray in groups of 3-5 about needs among group members.

The wrap-up talk comes from professor Dr. Derrick Roenior of Vanguard. He reads an account (Matth. 26) of a woman who poured pouring her most precious possession - perfume - over Jesus' head as he reclined at table. She broke the alabaster box and it could not be reused. "What is your most precious possession?" he asks us. "Are you willing to offer that to Jesus, to surrender it to serve him? Will you break your treasure so that it cannot be used for other purposes? Those who criticize you may not be outsiders but followers of Jesus, as happened here." 

It's a challenging ending to the evening. I stay outside to talk with students and Amy until after 10:30pm. It's time for bed when I reach the room.

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