Christmas in Bethlehem
Being in Bethlehem for Christmas was a dream for me. I booked 2 hotel rooms months in advance with the idea that some other hospital volunteers would want to join me, but no one did. The only hotel that had vacancies that far in advance was too far from Manger Square for me to be safe by myself. A few days before Christmas, I called the Manger Square Hotel (that's right beside the Church of the Nativity & where our 2014 pilgrim group stayed) on the chance that maybe there had been a cancellation. They had 1 room available---& it was less expensive than the first one I'd booked. Thanks be to God!
Upon arrival in Bethlehem, my first stop was in the historic Church of the Nativity, where I saw 3 Moslem ladies exploring. I'd never seen any head-covered Moslems in a Christian Church. Then I met my friend Walter that has also been a SERVE volunteer in Nazareth. We ate dinner at Afteem, a Christian-owned falafel shop that's been there since 1948. It was really cold that night so I'm wearing a scarf in this photo trying to keep warm. Walter is a student at Bethlehem Bible College working on his masters degree in world peace. He's started a cottage business turning spent tear gas canisters into Christmas tree ornaments (www.peaceparcels.com). Christmas Eve day, lots of bagpipe & drum bands marched thru town. That must be leftover influence from the British Mandate era (1918-1948) upon this Arab population. They were great! Next, I visited the Shepherds Field. I'd been to the Evangelical Shepherds Field but wanted to see the Catholic Shepherds Field. Something else to share about is the Nigerians that one sees here. As I understand it, their gov't gives each citizen $800 to go on spiritual pilgrimage. Moslems go to Mecca & Christians go to the Holy Land. They're happy, soulful people that I always enjoy seeing. Here's a shot of a Nigerian group in the first Shepherds Field chapel. As I walked further into the field, there were more places for groups to worship. I could hear Christmas carols being sung by at least 4 different groups in 4 different languages. It was exciting & felt like the whole world was preparing to celebrate Christ's birth! The ruins of a large Byzantine Church were there. Among them was a staircase going down into the ground. I couldn't resist & went in. It was a cave. At the back was an altar, 3 benches & an electric light over them was on. I sat on one of the benches & opened into contemplative prayer. It occurred to me that Jesus was probably born in a cave & how comfortable the temperature would have been if there were some animals & other people there. I got a strong sense of how much God loves me & takes care of me. The next day, I bought a small, carved olive wood lamb to remind me of that special time. Here's a photo from inside.
In going back to Manger Square in Bethlehem for Christmas Eve, I was struck by how much security they had. At least 2 men on every rooftop & a dozen or more police & army in every corner.
The "place to be" is the midnight mass at St. Catherine's, the newer church next to the 3rd century Church of the Nativity. A free ticket is required & I was unable to get one...but I ended up having something better. The law of the land is that the leader of that area has to attend the service at St. Catherine's at least until just before Eucharist. The British leader attended during the Mandate period & Mahmoud Abbas attends now. There were barricades in Manger Square & guards around the church. I couldn't get thru from the side with the big, beautiful lit Christmas tree & large screen that the service is broadcast on, so I went around to the side. A uniformed guard told me Abbas was inside & said to wait across the street for 10 minutes. I said ok. That guard left & another came. His English wasn't great & I went on about "how many times would I get to be in Bethlehem for Christmas?!" He said, "Ok, but go quickly." I got closer to the door of St Catherine's & there was another barricade. A voice said, "Do you just want to go to the church?" I held my hand out & said "yes" loudly. He moved the barricade back & I got into the Church of the Nativity. My plan had been to use the side door to enter St Catherine's. I looked around & realized that it was empty. I could finally get a good look at the beautiful Byzantine floor without the crowds around.
Then I though, "Wait a minute, where was Jesus born? I'll go to the Grotto!" I tiptoed down & there were about 15 or 20 people there, mostly monks & nuns, having Eucharist in Arabic. Wow that was special. That was my Christmas!
Afterwards, I went to the courtyard where there's a nice statue of St Jerome, just in time to see the recession from St Catherine's. It was led by 2 men in what looked like Turkish uniforms (perhaps carried over from the Ottoman period) each holding a rod that they stamped on the ground in staccato unison. Then the thurifer, crucifer, priests, bishop, Costas, choir and many others.
I crossed the street to my hotel room about 2 am & went to sleep with a warm heart & smile, feeling like God & I had such a special Christmas together in Bethlehem.
There are just a few more things I'd like to share about the end of my time here this year.
I attended an Israeli Philharmonic concert in Haifa. Andras Schiff was guest conductor & pianist that performed Bach. I sat next to an interesting Jewish lady who had moved here as a small child with her parents in 1948. The house lights were on during the whole concert (maybe for security?) and their applause were rhythmic & in unison. The quality of the performance was excellent.
There's a Moslem Man that is a patient here in dialysis. When I was here in the summer, he would yell at the TV and gruffly asked the nurse in Arabic if I would massage his feet when I was working with a lady next to him. I hadn't planned to massage any men because of the traditional culture here but said I would. He had gross feet and toenails that were super dry. He would gasp in pain when I put on the lotion & started working on his feet, but he said it was good, that I should continue and he verbally said many blessings on me and my family while I was massaging.
I didn't see him when I first got back in November because I worked on days that he wasn't here. My schedule changed & he was so excited to see me. He grabbed my hand and wanted to know how long I am here. I told him I would be with him as much as I could. I had things to do and it took me a while to see him. Whenever he would see me pass by his door, he would yell. When I finally got there, he opened up and started telling me about his family, how he's sad about the violence in the world, that his daughter works here in maternity, lots of things. I ended up not only massaging those old dry feet, but also both hands and even got behind his chair to work on pain he pointed out to me in his shoulders. Because he's usually crusty, most people here won't take much time with him. He's calling me his daughter now and I am honored. Here is a selfie that we took. I heard that the nurses thought we were funny.
New Year's Eve is something else that they're good at celebrating. Jane that helps run the volunteer program invited me to her home. They hosted dinner for 20. We put about 5 bowls of each type of salad, grouped so each person could reach each type. It was Jane & her husband, their children, their children's spouses, the spouses' parents & siblings, a neighbor & me. They grilled 4 or 5 kinds of meat, served bread, drinks, dessert. I once again was blessed by the incredible warmth & hospitality of our beautiful Christian brothers & sisters in the Holy Land. I go home grateful.
Advent in Nazareth
There's a big Christmas tree lighting celebration in front of the Greek Orthodox Church that was built over a well where Mary would draw water. The evening was an extravaganza with a stage, music groups, awards given to honorable citizens, a countdown (that started at 15 in Arabic), and then a great fireworks show when the tree was lit. I attended with some of the other hospital volunteers and it was a great time.
The Nazareth Hospital has a Christmas bazaar. It's a little bit like the Holiday Faire that we have at St. Paul's but is smaller. I bought some lovely handmade goods.
The hospital had a retreat day for the staff & we volunteers got to join them. A bus picked us up in the morning. On the way, we stopped for a manaquish breakfast---round, thicker flatbread with white cheese or zatar (a mixture of mostly thyme that they use a lot) & olive oil. It was especially good fresh & warm. The retreat day was held at Hamat Gadar, southeast of Nazareth, near the Sea of Galilee. They have hot springs pools where we soaked & swam, a clever bird show, a large area with crocodiles & alligators, a petting zoo, the ruins of a Byzantine Synagogue & peacocks roaming the grounds. What an adventure. Here are some photos.