In February, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of journal entries.
We spent the first three nights of the Holy Land tour at the Angel Hotel in Bethlehem. The family-run establishment featured modest rooms with delicious buffets and Middle Eastern hospitality—even modern amenities like free WIFI!
The name of the hotel is emblematic of the entire town. Figures of celestial beings, stars, and shepherds fill this small city a few miles south of Jerusalem.
Over the past years, the Christian population has declined rapidly in the majority Muslim town. I awoke the first morning at 4:00 a.m. to an Arabic call to prayer from a minaret apparently located right outside the window. However, money trumps religion in a town that thrives on Christian tourism.
Since returning from Israel, people have repeatedly asked about my most and least favorite places on the trip. A number of nominations contend for the “Most Popular” category. However, I can readily identify my “Least Favorite” finalist: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
The Church of the Nativity is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. (“Traditional” in tourism code means a site which cannot be identified with academic certainty but pilgrims have visited for generations.) When Emperor Constantine of Rome became a Christian in the fourth century, his mother, Helena, visited the Holy Land. She commissioned a number of basilicas (churches) built over sacred sites, including the Church of the Nativity.
We visited the church our second day in country. “O little town of Bethlehem” is not so little anymore. The population of 25,000 entertains over 2 million tourists annually.
The tour bus stopped at a multistory parking garage, and we walked past a Kentucky Fried Chicken into the crowded streets. Souvenir hawkers and roadside beggars accosted the group while the smell of fried falafel and sharp spices filled the air.
Commerce reigns supreme at Manger Square where merchants prey on religious pilgrims. Tourists can purchase postcards, scarves, crosses, manger scenes, angels, camels, and more. Forests of carved olive wood figures fill the stores’ shelves. If a herald angel appeared today, no one would hear the natal message above the din of engines, horns, and voices.
Congregants must duck to enter the basilica’s doorway. Years ago church officials lowered the entrance so people could not ride horses, camels, and donkeys into the building! The trivia tickled my sense of humor; however, it also felt appropriate to humbly bow while entering the ancient sanctuary.
Contractors are currently renovating the interior of the building, and banded wood protected the pillars and plywood sheets covered the floors. Dictated by an ancient agreement, the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches oversee different parts of the facility.
Impressions: the Church of the Nativity precariously balanced sacred and secular, grandeur and gaudy, touching and tacky. Crimson glass-blown balls hung from the ceilings and cloying incense perfumed the air. In an odd anachronism, energy-saving, curly florescent bulbs provided modern light from the ancient fixtures.
Forget the Christmas card, manger scene settings complete with barn and stable—Jesus’ birth more likely occurred in a cave. At the side of the sanctuary, a stairwell descended to a small grotto guarded by a priest. A fourteen point silver star beneath an altar marked the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. Pilgrims knelt before the star, some asking for the priest’s blessing.
We walked back up the steps and visited the Roman Catholic chapel next door. Saint Jerome spent thirty years in a nearby cave translating the Scriptures into contemporary Latin which was later called the Vulgate (“Vulgate” shares the same root word as “vulgar” which means “commonly used.”)
Of course, a ubiquitous gift shop guarded the exit for any tourist needing a memento of the visit. Then we made our way down the crowded sidewalks to board the bus.
The whole experience underwhelmed me—to be fair, in part because the modern setting could not compare to my mental images of that first silent night. The ornate setting of the nativity also felt like a visual oxymoron—the humble manger scene of Jesus’ birth overlaid with glitter, glimmer, and gilding.
Earlier in the day, however, we visited the Shepherd’s Fields—a more pastoral site south of town. A peaceful garden overlooked green slopes leading up to Bethlehem. In the foreground, a shepherd watched over his flocks much like his ancestors did millennia ago. The simple scene reflected the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth much more than the bustling business of Bethlehem.
For those with ears to hear, the angelic message still echoes over the plains: Good news . . . great joy . . . all people . . . born to us today . . . a Savior . . . Christ . . . the Lord.
Like the shepherds, may we say to one another: Let us go see this thing which the Lord has done.