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Archive for the ‘Bethlehem’ Category

What if the story was unfolding today?   Would we follow the Tweets as the Magi followed the star?

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I know Christmas is some weeks away, but we are about to enter the season of Advent – the time of waiting and preparation for the second coming of Christ.   But I thought now was as good a time as any to remind ourselves of what it is we celebrate in 29 days time – the First Coming of Christ.

“He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.   And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”   

(Philippians 2:7-8)

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For many people a visit to the Holy Land becomes a sort of “fifth gospel”. For me, it became a lens though which to read the pages of the written Gospels and I am stunned at how much clearer they have become. I am now leading a 10 day Pilgrimage to the Holy Land leaving from Aberdeen, Scotland 16th-25th March 2011.

I feel that, if at all possible, people should take the chance to visit if they can; there is so much to see, hear, learn, experience and share. Blogs, books, photos and presentations can certainly peak our attention, but nothing beats the personal experience. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is more than pious tourism and few, but the cynical, would see it as a “Christian Disneyland”. Indeed I found it to give me an awareness not only of the past, but also the present.

I became aware that the Holy Land was an amazing experience of spirituality, education, and culture.

Model of Jerusalem on eve of destruction 70 AD

Visits will include Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and Qumran, as well as allowing free time for relaxation and private exploration. We will walk along the Via Dolorosa, sail on the Sea of Galilee, float on the Dead Sea and ascend the Mount of Masada by cable car.

If you’re interested in joining this adventure then please get in touch.

For more information see the attached brochure. Holy Land Pilgrimage 2011

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I had an operation on my wrist last week, and find that the restricted movement that has been imposed upon me for the next 10 days means I’m looking for things I can do without causing too much pain. I decided video editing was a safe thing to do – use one hand, point and click. Okay there have been a few moments when I’ve forgotten and tried to hold a button down, but the sharp pain up my arm reminds me it’s not the thing to do! Anyway, I’ve put together a short video of my trip to Israel and include it here to give you a flavour not only of the trip, but also of the sights and sounds of land.

 

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The two most important locations in the Christian world stand only six miles apart: Bethlehem the birth place of Jesus Christ and Jerusalem the site of his death and resurrection. Two churches mark these sites, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and for the first time in 2000 years the road between the two is closed.  Like Mary and Joseph, travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem on the orders of the occupying Roman government, Palestinians today live their lives shaped by the Israeli soldiers occupying their towns; guarding the checkpoints and controlling all movement in and out of the area.   For those of us who are tourists, the disruption is minimal.   For those who live here, it’s a whole different story.   Palestinian residents of Bethlehem must get out of their cars; stand in long lines to get their papers checked; they must apply for permits weeks ahead of time, and only for a specific purpose. Even if they are lucky enough to get a permit, they must wait, sometimes hours, every time they leave Bethlehem, and for those who work in Jerusalem there is no fast track; the routine is the same every day.   But it was to here that we travelled to see the Church of the Nativity.

Church of the Nativity on Manger Square

Church of the Nativity on Manger Square

The Church is built over a cave that is believed to be the birth place of Jesus Christ, this seems to be a very strong, and unchallenged tradition; at the time of Jesus and in the centuries that followed, the oral tradition was very strong and in 135 AD the Roman Emperor Hadrian, perhaps to divert attention from the site, gave orders that a grove, dedicated to the pagan god Adonis, should be planted in the immediate vicinity of the cave.   If it was his intention was to deflect attention, what he did was mark the location for the next couple of centuries.   (There are two written references to the Bethlehem cave surrounded by a grove dedicated to Adonis, made by Justin Martyr in 155 AD and Origen confirms it in 215 AD).   The church is administered jointly by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Church, and the interior reflects their traditions.   As the case of most other historical sites in Israel, this site too was built, destroyed and rebuilt over the past 1500 years.   As you enter the church, you have to bow your head; this is the result of three earlier doorways being filled in.   This was done for purely defensive purposes, but for the Christian who enters nowadays, it seems a fitting way to go into the birthplace of Jesus.  

Place of the Nativity - Silver Star

Place of the Nativity - Silver Star

Once in the church we made our way down some stairs to the Place of the Nativity – a rectangular cave, elaborately decorated with hanging lamps from both the Roman Catholic and Eastern traditions.  A silver star on the floor into which you may place your hand, allows you to touch the floor of the cave, smoothed over the centuries by the pilgrims who have come to this place.  

Church of the Nativity

Church of the Nativity

You leave the cave via another set of stairs which takes you into the area belonging to the Armenians.   In this part of the church there is a large open square with an arrays of lamps hanging down the centre; the walls are decaying but the golden mosaics of the 11th century can still be seen; the pillars, largely worn and covered in centuries of smoke and dirt, have delicate paintings on them; underneath the present floor lies the mosaic floors of the 5th century.   

The whole place gave me a very distinct feeling that I am just a tiny dot in the universe.   Suddenly, I discovered that I have unknowingly joined my hands to pray.  And as I thought of the Saviour of the world born in this place over 2000 years ago, and who still lives today, I prayed for Bethlehem which at this very moment is in desperate need of salvation.

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Rebuilding

The next visit was to BASR (Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation) which began in an old house in Bethlehem in 1960.  Over the years it has grown and by 1990 the present hospital was constructed.   BASR is a non-profit, non- government organisation, recognised nationally for the medical and rehabilitation services it offers irrespective of gender, age, religion or social class.   Intensive residential treatment and care is given, usually over a 3-6 month period, to those with serious injuries or disabilities – people whether they have been shot, tortured, in accidents or born with disabilities are taken in and their belief that “Every Patient is First and Foremost a Human Being” is evident from the mix of people we encountered.   Their stories cover the walls of some of the meeting rooms – “I was shot in the arms, legs and back and am paralysed …” “I was tortured by soldiers and my back was broken …” “I had a stroke …” “I was in an accident …”

It also has an amazing ward for the rehabilitation of children. The children have neurological problems as the result of cerebral palsy, road traffic accidents, congenital and, unfortunately, also inflicted trauma. The focus is on short term rehabilitation with physiotherapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. It also continues the rehabilitation in the community where physiotherapists do home visits and try and teach the parents and families how to continue therapies. Many staff are themselves disabled and a witness to the children and mothers that disability need not mean a lifetime of dependence.

 When I say this is a non-profit organization, I mean just that, it depends on funding and is currently struggling to make its budgets.   They have to get their medicines and supplies through agents from Israel and are paying well over the odds.   Some staff are currently having to work without pay.   What this area would do without this facility doesn’t bear thinking about.   It’s here at the moment, but it is not always easily accessible even though it is well established and recognised, nor is it able to offer the kind of care we would expect as routine – if someone needs a blood transfusion, then a relative will need to drive to Hebron (through checkpoints) which on a good day is about 30 minutes away and on a bad day can be more than 3 hours of waiting at a check point to get to Hebron and then to bring the blood back.  

Oh, and that Wall gets closer!

BASR’s mission is simply humanitarian and aims at promoting reconciliation, love and peace among people of different religions and backgrounds.   All good as far as I can see.  No ulterior motive.  So why is it penalised and why can’t it be recognised for what it is – a hospital helping people?

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We returned 5 days ago, and I’m still digesting everything I experienced in Israel.   We saw and did so much in 6 days, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to completely comprehend everything we saw and did while over there; but definitely some things will stay with me for a long time.  Parts of this trip moved me much more than I could have ever expected; in fact, I’m not even sure I expected to be ‘moved’ at all.

One thing I wasn’t prepared for – we always knew when we were entering an occupied territory, and by the end of the trip we knew we were going into places where hardship is a part of everyday life for everyone, and where the people feel they have no control over their life as a human being.   Before going on this trip, I was very ignorant about the Arab-Israeli conflict’s details, and quite honestly, I think many westerners are the same.   I feel that for many it is an ongoing news item, and they don’t feel the need to learn about it or understand it, because they don’t see how it can ever be resolved, and besides, they don’t see it having any impact on them. 

Separation wall at Bethlehem

Separation wall at Bethlehem

On one occasion, having visited Bethlehem, we were stopped and pulled over by Israeli security at a checkpoint as we “re-entered” Israel.  They asked if we were bringing anything into Israel that we should not, and if anyone gave us anything to take into Israel.  After a short stop we were allowed to pass and we all breathed a sigh of relief, but we also travelled on with a clearer understanding of the tensions that exist in this land.  Passing through the security check is fairly straightforward with a foreign passport.  But Israelis are not allowed to visit Palestinian towns, and Palestinians are only allowed to visit Israel with special permission or a permit from their employer.   So something as simple as going from Bethlehem to Jerusalem (6 miles away) is fraught with danger and even rejection for many.  Because the truth of the matter is that although we as tourists could have been detained longer and even turned around and not allowed to continue, it would be nothing more than a small inconvenience for us, but for the Palestinians it is more than that.  That stop can be more than a check point.  It can be a stop point that says “here, but no further”.  But it’s not all straightforward – Palestinian (Muslim) and Israeli (Jew) – because within that you also have Palestinian Christians – And even though Bethlehem is, in effect, Palestinian controlled, Bethlehem Christians have fled in huge numbers. The Christian population went from around 80% ten years ago to nearly 12% today, and the remaining Christians live under a mafia-like protection racket.

Even with all this tension, I have to say that for me, as a visitor, there was never a moment where I felt threatened or looked over my shoulder to see who was there. 

While it’s difficult to predict if the land can ever be shared, or be split into two states with agreed demarcation lines, one thing is certain – at the moment the barrier between Arabs and Jews has become as much a literal object as it is a figurative one.   A 26 ft high wall, with watch towers every 200 metres or layers of razor wire with electric fencing, sensors and cameras confines Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, to 7 sq miles, and is in effect making it a ‘no man’s land’.

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