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Our trip to the Holy Land

Icon in the crypt of the Church of The Nativity in Bethlehem

Between 25th October and 3rd November 2016, a group of parishioners from St Thomas’ and St Andrew’s Churches went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Here we are in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, queuing.  We are herded close together and jostled and pushed towards the well-worn stone steps leading down to the Cave of the Nativity.  There are plenty of sharp elbows in the crowd.  Behind us is a group of noisy Russian pilgrims.  Was it like this in Bethlehem in the time of Herod the King?  Let us take our imaginations back 2,000 years.  Did Mary heavily pregnant, experience pushing and jostling and crowds of people thinking only of themselves.  She and Joseph were in a crowded place as they searched for a safe shelter for the long-awaited Baby to be born.  How desperate she must have been when there was no room at the inn.  How much worse for her than for us.  Eventually in crowded Bethlehem she was shown somewhere safe, a cave that was used as a stable with animals to help keep it warm.  Jesus was born there, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. 

Bethlehem was a small place of some 500 people at the time of Christ’s birth unlike today with a population of 80,000.  The cave in the Church of the Nativity may not be the actual cave where Jesus was born but it is almost certain that this is the authentic area of Christ’s birth.  It seems important to focus on the big picture, that Christ was born in human form and came to live on Earth to save us. The imperfection of our experience can enhance it by making us think more deeply.  We make our way to Shepherds’ Fields.

From Shepherds’ Fields, no longer fields but a hard-terraced area, there is a view of Bethlehem perched on a hill some considerable distance away.  If this is where the shepherds were when the Angel brought them the good news of Christ’s birth, then they had long walk before they arrived at the stable, finishing with a steep ascent.  These were people on the margins of society, unable to take part in ritual bathing or observe the Sabbath.  They were outside polite religious society, away from civilization.  They were dirty, smelly and rough.  Not people you would want next to you on the Tube but Christ was born for everyone and God chose the shepherds to pay homage to Jesus.

But, we too, it appears, are on the margins of society because our priest is a woman.  We cannot celebrate the Eucharist in Shepherds’ Fields which is under the care of the Franciscan Order.  There is no room at the inn for us today.  Our place of worship will be a garden owned by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). A man from the YMCA, an Arab Christian, greets us warmly and tells us of their work in Bethlehem and the surrounding area in the Palestinian Territories.  This, as it turns out, is the ideal place to celebrate the Eucharist, full of Christian love.  It is, for most of the pilgrims, a profound spiritual experience.  Everything has been turned around as it was for Mary and Joseph and for the shepherds.

Today this is a land contradictions, a complicated and complex society, impossible to comprehend from one short visit.  It is full of holy places, yet it is divided into segregated districts and quarters to keep the Israelis and Palestinians apart.  In one area, there is a wall of separation, an ugly gash on the landscape which causes daily irritation to the population.  From the little I know of the Holy Land and its history, I think it must always have been like this. We know it was in the time of Jesus Christ.  Because the Holy Land, the wider Middle East and most of the World is still troubled, the life on Earth of the Baby whose birth we celebrate at Christmas is universally relevant.

Some of the travellers share their reflections on the trip and there are lots of photos of our trip to the Holy Land in the photo gallery .