Our day began with the usual wake-up call at 6 and I am happy to report I have now enjoyed two good night’s of sleep.
After breakfast we loaded the bus and departed Galilee for good, heading south with Jerusalem as our ultimate destination. Our guide, Nadar, is outstanding. He is a Syrian Orthodox and full of good humor and important knowledge. He was our guide last time the last time our church toured the Holy Land and he has not disappointed me yet. His favorite line as we depart the bus for each site is: “Chop, chop; shake a leg; let’s get going!”
Our drive was about 2 1/2 hours which was largely below sea level as we journeyed down the Jordan Valley. The geography changed dramatically from vibrant green hills and rich vegetation to stark, arid land. The wilderness, or desert as it can be translated in the Bible is a rough and rugged environment. Yet it was out of this same wilderness that Moses was called, Israel was led and fed and John the Baptist preached. The desert was where Jesus was tempted and so is a place of holy happenings and wanderings.
We made one pit stop at an interesting roadside convenience store/tourist attraction. Along with bathroom breaks, others took advantage of new and exotic snacks and delicious coffee. So far no one has taken the opportunity to ride a camel but I suspect this will happen before we head back home. .
We approached Jerusalem and were greeted by remnants of snow! While Georgia is going through a warm spell Jerusalem was brought to a near standstill the day before with an inch or so of snow.
We drove around Jerusalem and entered the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, our destination for the day. Our first stop was not a sacred site but a shopping site. Many in the group wanted to help the struggling economy of the Palestinian Christians and so we all did our part. Prior to today we have been moving from one site to another with lectures in between, so a bit of retail therapy was overdue. I bought a Palestinian scarf (which can also be used as a headdress) and it was just the trick to keep my neck warm. I am not sure I am blending in yet, but more and more I am looking the part.
After credit cards and cash changed hands we arrived at Manger Square, just across from the Basilica of the Nativity, to have lunch. It seems every hour we are eating a full meal and I am actually starting to feel as though I might get full. We waddled, I mean wandered over to a local restaurant in Bethlehem where we enjoyed salads and falafel and I followed my meal with an espresso to bolster me for the rest of the day.
My espresso purchase may have been premature because once we exited and walked down the street I happened upon a coffees shop titled: “Stars and Bucks.” I bought mugs because while Starbucks may be on every corner in New York City there is only one Stars and Bucks that I know of and it is in Bethlehem. The mugs were made in China by the way.
Next we toured the Basilica of the Nativity and looked upon the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth. One by one we bent low while entering the church through the door of humility. The air was pungent with the incense used by the Orthodox in worship. Amidst the cacophony of fellow pilgrims, aggressive peddlers and various religious groups chanting, singing and praying, it is not too hard to imagine the chaos of Bethlehem when Mary and Joseph searched for a place for Jesus’s birth. On our way to the hotel we stopped by the Shepherd’s field and looked over one of Bethlehem’s many rugged hillsides. There was an old cave that was once used by shepherds but now serves as a modest chapel. We held an brief worship service where we sung hymns, read scripture and one of our fellow pilgrims, Rusty Brock, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Clemson, SC, reflected on God’s gift to the world through the Son Jesus.
Our hotel in Jerusalem – The David Citadel – is superb. We wearily hauled our luggage to our rooms and enjoyed a great meal together (have I mentioned that we are doing a lot of eating on this pilgrimage?). A couple of us took a 10 minute walk to a pedestrian shopping area and took in the nightlife of the outskirts of Old City Jerusalem – it is more exciting than you think!
It is hard to describe how stunning and beautiful and moving this city is, especially when first arriving as we did this morning. It is a holy place to three major world religions, and for good reason.
Now it is time for me to log off and put this full day behind me and settle in for a good night’s rest.
Peace be with you all,