Here are a few more recollections – secular and spiritual – about the land in which Jesus lived and which is now the focus of attention for an increasing number of pilgrims.
Nearly all of them arrive at Bethlehem in coaches which park in the large central square. The name of this square? You might think it would be something like Central Square or Bethlehem Square, but it is Manger Square.
From the time of my first visit over thirty years ago I have appreciated that feeling of importance given to the little baby resting on the bed of straw. One of the youngsters in a group I took there spoke of the manger as “our chance to do something for God.” Perhaps it was an unusual phrase, but I felt she had a valid point.
Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity is naturally the centre of attention in Bethlehem. Built of solid stone it dominates you as you approach the entrance and here I had a real shock.
I was expecting a grand panelled door at the head of an imposing flight of stairs. Instead I found most of the entry had been blocked by smaller stones leaving only a restricted opening which meant that even a short person like me had to bend in order to enter.
From that moment I have always felt how appropriate it was that you have to bow your head before approaching the birthplace of God’s son.
Some years later I led a group from Chandler’s Ford parish down the steps into the grotto and after a period of private prayer before the Star of the Nativity we had the singular pleasure of singing “Away in a Manger” while gathered around the original manger.
“We are now going below sea level.”
From Bethlehem it is not far to reach the Dead Sea.
Your coach travels down a modern road towards one of the lowest areas on the earth’s surface. As you pass a signpost which reads “Sea Level” the driver always says over the sound system “We are now going below sea level. Please check all the windows are securely closed.”
Without fail many passengers immediately jump up and start checking nearby windows, before they realise they have fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the tourist guidebook.
Remembering a school trip with Montgomery Of Alamein School
When I have been leading a school group, aged 14-16, it has been a delight to watch them enjoying their float on the waters of this salt sea and covering themselves with the therapeutic black mud which is kept in large containers on the shore. Quite a change from the serious nature of much of the rest of their trip.
In Jerusalem the high point for all pilgrims is to join a group along the Via Dolorosa, ending in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which covers the site of Calvary and the tomb of the crucified Christ.
The ultimate sign of God’s love
On one of my visits I was accompanied by my teenage daughter. We climbed the steps to Calvary and approached that section which contains the holes into which the uprights of the crosses were placed.
She knelt beside them and after a moment’s pause slid her hand into the central hole. As she withdrew her hand she looked up at me and said simply, “Spooky.” In that one word she conveyed so much.
How privileged were we and all those who make this journey to be able to visit this place which marks the ultimate sign of God’s love for his people.
- Travel Journal: Whereto next?
- Israel – Ancient And Modern (Part 1 of 4)
- Israel – Ancient And Modern (Part 2 of 4)
- Israel – Ancient And Modern (Part 3 of 4)
- Israel – Ancient And Modern (Part 4 of 4)