Today we moved from focusing on the world of Jesus to the beginning of his life. We passed through the concrete wall erected by the Israeli's between Israel and the Palestinian territories and plunged into the chaos that is modern Bethlehem. Once we got past the street merchants and taxi drivers trying to get some kind of business out of us, we made our way to the oldest continuously functioning church in the Holy Land which stands over the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Built by Justinian in the 500's, the Church of the Nativity has stood the test of time despite it's weather-beaten appearance.
There was an Orthodox mass being held in the cave under the altar of the church. Although we tried to wait it out, in the end we abandoned our attempt to enter the cave, opting instead for the beautiful courtyard of the neighboring Catholic church where we pondered the incomprehensible mystery of the infinite and eternal Creator of the universe emptying himself and entering into creation itself. We sensed God's call to follow Jesus more closely that we too might incarnate the Good News of God's Kingdom for the whole world.
After our prayerful time of reflection, we headed for the pastoral hills of the Christian Palestinian village of Beit Sahour, the traditional location for the Shepherd's Fields just outside of Bethlehem. Here, on these rocky hills, Jewish shepherds were spending the night with their flocks under starry skies when all heaven broke out! The lovely chapel at Shepherd's Fields features a dome pierced by hundreds of glass-filled openings, mimicking the glory of an angel filled sky. Holding up the heavy marble altar top are four bronze shepherd boys cowering down in fearful awe of the angel's pronouncement. We sang some familiar Christmas carols in the resonant chapel and then headed for an open-air amphitheater where we gathered to worship while overlooking the Shepherd's Fields. While Art Barrett was teaching us how David's 23rd Psalm reflects the biblical themes of Covenant and Kingdom through the practices of ancient shepherds, as if on divine cue, a shepherd appeared on the hill, moving his flocks to new green pastures!
The last, but certainly not least stop for the day, was a visit to Herodium, the amazing conical desert fortress Herod the Great built out of a mountain. Another of Herod's engineering marvels, these massive remains still reflect the audacity of turning a mountain into a palace! It was only six years ago that Herod's tomb was discovered here, buried in the slope of the mountain. We climbed up to the top through naturally air-conditioned tunnels dug by the Zealots who later captured this fort in the Jewish uprising. It was a welcome reprieve from the desert heat!
Now we are back at the Lutheran Guesthouse resting before a good dinner and some time to process in small Huddle groups all we have been experiencing and hearing from God. Mike Breen arrives tonight and we are looking forward to the new teachings he will be sharing with us for the rest of our trip. Please keep praying for us as we seek to walk more fully in Jesus' footsteps ....