Saturday, December 19, 2015

Christmas: Up Close and Personal

Earlier this year I traveled to Israel on a pilgrimage with my church, Trinity Church in Copley Square. Below I summarize what I learned with a few headlines.

Headline 1: Jesus Was Born in a Cave

Grotto of the Nativity
Bethlehem
November 2, 2015

Hearing that Jesus was born in a manger because there wasn't enough room in the inn, I think of Mary and Joseph arriving at some sort of Biblical hotel, where they are escorted to a back area with lots of hay and animals, surrounded by some sort of wooden structure. In reality, Jesus was likely born in a cave, like the one above where those in Israel say the birth took place. In biblical times, they didn't have hotels; you stayed with friends. And people lived in caves. Joseph and Mary likely proceeded to the back of this cave. (I am taking the picture standing where the front of the cave was and looking backwards.) The back of the cave--the back of the house-- is where the animals would be. The picture above looks toward the spot of Jesus birth, which is identified by a star.

Star Marking the Spot of Jesus's Birth
Bethlehem
November 2, 2015

Headline 2: Joseph was Not a Carpenter

Everyone lived in caves in Biblical times. Why would their be need for a carpenter? Most likely, Joseph was a builder of some sort (through translations of the Bible we ended up with carpenter).

Biblical caves
Nazareth
October 30, 2015

A likely narrative for Jesus's life. He lived with his parents in the small town of Nazareth, traveling with his dad each day to the now-ruined Roman city of Sepphoris. There Joseph worked on various building projects (The city was booming). Some believe Mary's mom (Jesus' grandmother) lived in Sepphoris. It's possible that Jesus spent time with her and perhaps saw a "show" in Sepphoris's grand amphitheater as a reward for being "good."

Amphitheater in Sepphoris
Galilee
October 29, 2015

Sepphoris is located very close to a major Israeli highway, and in Biblical times, Sepphoris was close to a major trade route "Via Maris." For that reason, it's highly likely that Jesus was a cultured person, who spoke Arabic as well as a little Hebrew and Aramaic.

Headline 3: The Berlin Wall is Back, in Israel

Over the past several years, Israel has constructed a wall that separates Israel from occupied Palestine. To see the wall is chilling. It is very high (much higher than the Berlin Wall) in Bethlehem, where at one point in runs right down what used to be a main thoroughfare. As Israel wants access to the Old Testament site of Rachel's tomb, which is pretty much in Bethlehem, the wall encircles that site, with a narrow access road allowing Israelis to drive to the tomb. As a consequence, the wall snakes sharply at the entrance to Bethlehem, leaving one former souvenir store on the Palestinian side blocked on three sides by the wall.

A prayer reading on the Palestinian side.
Bethlehem 
November 2, 2015

It's not enough to say that Israel is a divided country, because that implies that Palestinians have independence. Palestinian movement is severely restricted. We met American Palestinians who are not allowed to visit the American embassy in Tel Aviv (even though they carry U.S. Passports), because Israel doesn't recognize their passports. Israel has arguments for the severe treatment of Palestinians, and I don't mean to make a political statement here. However, when you are on a pilgrimage and you see a wall only a few miles from the site of Jesus's birth, it hits you pretty hard. Yet the Palestinians are trying to cope.

The Palestinian side
Bethlehem 
November 2, 2015

Headline 4: A lot of Muslims live in the Holy Land

Nazareth is an Arab city in Israel proper. It is majority Christian (yes, Arab Christians) and about a third Muslim. We stayed at a Catholic nunnery a hundred yards or so from the Basilica of the Annunciation, which marks a spot where most Christians (save Orthodox) think that Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her she would give birth to Jesus. The nunnery is also close to a Mosque. This sets up quite the competition. Very early each morning, the Muslim call to prayer bellows from the minaret. Some time later, at the top of the hour (let's say 6 a.m.), bells go wild from the Basilica. It's quite the.. shall we say.. wake-up call. And it reminds all that many Muslims live in the Holy Land. In fact, where I stayed in Jerusalem, around the Episcopal Diocese at St. George's Cathedral, is in a predominantly Muslim area of the city.

video
Muslim call to prayer
Nazareth
October 30, 2015

Summary

Israel is a special place to billions of people. The emotion it stirs in so many has caused divisions for thousands of years. [Of note, Christians themselves can't even agree on how to administer some of the holy sites, and management of them is divided among several denominations.] I am an optimistic guy; and from what I observed, I think the majority of people living in the holy lands-- whether you call them Israel and Palestine or Judea, Galilee, and Samaria-- want peace, if only their leaders would get out of the way. Our guide bought each of us a candle in Bethlehem, and he made us promise to light it on Christmas Eve and to pray for peace. That's what I will be doing this Thursday night.