A Pilgrim's Notebook - Chapter 3

Pilgrim notes #3 - Bethlehem & the Palestinian Liberation Theology Center
Monday: 03/06/2000

"For unto us, a child is born . . . " Isaiah 9:6

Today was dedicated mostly to the Birthplace of Jesus. After listening to a track of Handel, we got a lecture on the differences, especially the inconsistencies, between Matthew's and Luke's nativity account. This appeared to be aimed at an effort to make the "facts" less important so we could be lectured on the "Christological" and "theological" aspects of the Gospels.

Finding that unsatisfactory, I stated, though it was taken as a question, "I don't have any trouble accepting the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke at face value. We know that after the resurrection that at least one eyewitness to the birth was still alive (his mother), and others (his brother, James, for example and other relatives) who probably knew the birth story and believers would ask about and repeat these stories. I don't have any problem with Matthew and Luke having heard different versions of the circulating stories, or remembering and including different portions for their Gospels. But I do have trouble with the assumption that because we can't find historical records for a census at the time of the birth of Christ, that none took place."

This began a spirited discussion. I think Southern Ohio won on points.

We then boarded the bus for the less than 10 mile trip to Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank territory. Because of traffic, the trip took over an hour.

The Armenians told us that as early as 254 AD, Armenian Bishops, in concert with bishops in Jerusalem and Alexandria, undertook to identify and protect sites that were notable for Christians. After his conversion, the Emperor Constantine, possibly with the encouragement of his mother, St. Helena, undertook to find and protect Christian sites. Constantine built a church over the cave in which Jesus was born that was dedicated by St. Helena in 339. Nearly destroyed in a Samaritan uprising in 529, the Emperor Justinian had a greater church built over it in the middle of the 6th century. This church, with additions, is what we visited.

Going down the stairs into the chamber under the sanctuary, that is directly over the cave of Jesus' birth was a highly personal and moving event. There, pilgrims took turns, sometimes two at a time, kneeling at a very small opening perhaps 10" in diameter, surrounded by an 8 pointed star. I made the sign of the cross a number of times while descending the stairs and kneeling down to this opening. Then, bowing deeply, kissed the star surely kissed by millions of earlier pilgrims down through the ages. (Ugh!) Slowly, St. George's pilgrims gathered in the back of the chamber singing first Silent Night.

Lady Chapel, Church of the Nativity

Lady Chapel, Church of the Nativity, Behthlehem

There, many lit votive candles we had been given, but I lit mine upstairs and placed it before an icon of the Virgin and Child, and prayed for people back home who need some praying.

The exit was unremarkable, through the adjacent St. Catharine's church under which is St. Jerome's cave where he translated Hebrew and Greek manuscripts into the Vulgate, out and back to the bus, for a trip that took only a little over an hour, making us late for our next appointment.

So we drove straight to "Sabeel," the "Palestinian Liberation Theology Center" without so much as a bathroom stop. Here we were treated to an eye opening perspective by their director, Father Naim Ateek, an Anglican Priest, that doesn't often get reported back in the US; the plight of the Palestinian Christians. This ecumenical center, dedicated to justice, has a broad program and the active support of most Christian churches, as well as secular supporters in Israel and Palestine. You may visit their website at http://www.sabeel.org/

We're up early tomorrow for a 3 day and 2 night trip to Galilee. No more messages till our return.

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