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Thursday 25 October: CATCH A FALLING STAR …

Final Resting Place of the Natal Star

Today we are off to Bethlehem via the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations, and Saint Pierre en Gallicante. I hope that we do not have as much walking to do as we did yesterday. My legs are still aching although I feel much fitter after the best part of a month here in Israel-Palestine. I appear to have lost some weight. Julia reckons it is to do with ‘lack of booze and all the exercise’. I get the feeling she has a ‘cunning plan’ to keep me on track when we get back to the UK at the weekend? I expect it will involve the exercise bike we bought before we came away? But first it is another of the splendid ‘Arabic Full English Breakfasts’ that our hotel provides … just to fortify me for the day ahead you understand?!

Our minibus arrives at 9.00 a.m. and we all climb aboard and take our usual seats. It doesn’t matter what bus we use we all always sit in the same seats … typical Brits you say! The minibus is a local bus but it has been organised from the Nazareth end by Azar … it belongs to a relation I think … it is the ‘Arab way’ of course. We drive up to the viewing point above the Mount of Olives where we enjoy first hand the marvellous view over the old city of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and the particularly prominent golden Dome of the Rock. We are directly opposite the Golden Gate of the city … the gate that some Jews and Christians believe the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through when he comes (or comes again of course). The Moslems have bricked it up and turned the ground in front of it into a cemetery, to prevent the Messiah entering? I find this very interesting because if they are so sure that they are right, and we are wrong, why be so afraid that you have to brick up the Golden Gate to prevent Messiah entering? You would have thought that they would have left it as it was in order to prove that they are right and we are wrong. We take lots of photographs and just drink in the splendour of the view before getting back on board our bus and descending to the Mount of Olives.

Our destination is the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations situated on the Mount of Olives. There is a beautifully preserved small garden right by the church featuring a number of olive trees that are at least 2,000 years old. No one can say for certain that Jesus and his disciples spent time at this particular spot but if it was not here then it would have been somewhere very much like here and near here. Despite the coach loads of tourists there is a tranquility about this place that I love. Julia and I have been here before, and we are glad to be back. We visit the Church of All Nations. It is quite pleasant. Mass is being celebrated. We sit for a while enjoying the atmosphere, but then go outside again to spend more time in prayerful reflection in this wonderful Garden where Jesus and his disciples also spent quality time.

From the Mount of Olives we drive around the city walls to the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu (as it is known in English). It is thought to be the site of the house of Caiphas the High Priest and the place where Jesus was held and tried before his crucifixion, and where Peter denied Christ three times (Luke 22:54-65). The church is quite modern but down in the basement there is an ancient deep pit thought to be the place where Jesus was held. We go down into the pit and I read the passage from Luke to the group. We then sing the first verse of the hymn, ‘Man of Sorrows, wondrous name’. It sounds terrific! For a small group we have what seems a full range of voices amongst us. If anything it is even better than our ‘performance’ in the Crusader Church of Saint Anne at Bethesda yesterday. There is another group following us who listen while we sing. When we have finished there is a moment of prayerful, pregnant silence. ‘Beautiful! Just beautiful!’ says one of this other group as we pass her on the way up from the pit!

Outside again we stand in the quadrangle that overlooks the old city right by the ancient steps that Jesus himself would have descended when we he was sent by Caiphas to Pilate. Last time Julia and I were here eight years ago we walked down these steps, but now they are roped off and all we can do is take photographs. There is a wonderful bronze statue here in the quadrangle depicting Jesus denying Christ. It is a very powerful piece of art and I spend some time simply sitting looking at it and allowing God to speak to me through it. We stop for coffee at the church restaurant and buy an olive wood rosary for a friend in the shop, and then pause at the viewing point with its amazing panoramic views over Jerusalem, before heading back to our minibus and continuing our journey to Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is in the West Bank so we drive to ‘the wall’ that the Jews have built to isolate the West Bank from Israel, and through the Israeli check point in the wall to Bethlehem. Bethlehem has a large Arab Christian populace (although the majority of Arabs there are Moslems these days) but it has suffered considerably as a direct result of the wall being built. There is considerably unemployment and the town is dependent on the tourist trade. We leave our minibus at the bus station and walk the short distance to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. Julia and I have not been here before so we are really looking forward to our visit. The approach to the church is striking, and we enter through a very small door. It is an extremely old church but (like so many churches built over significant sites in the Holy Land) split on denominational lines. There is the Armenian bit, and the Greek Orthodox bit, and the Roman Catholic bit. The main bit is Greek Orthodox. It is built over a crypt said to be the site where the natal star fell, and Jesus was born. There is a huge queue waiting to go down to the crypt and, recalling the horrendous queue to see the Holy Sepulchre we endured yesterday, our hearts fall. But one of the guides, who speaks English, sidles up to us and says he can get us in to the crypt the back way … and he is as good as his word! In fact for a ‘small donation’ he gets us into all sorts of nooks and crannies which normally would be closed for lunch at this time.

The crypt with its site where the star fell, and the site where the manger stood, is disappointing. The cell where Saint Jerome (c.347-420) translated the Bible into Latin and thus produced the Vulgate version of the Bible is much more interesting. Famously he used the word ‘penance’ instead of ‘repentance’ but I guess maybe he saw being stuck down a dark hole for 35 years translating the Bible into Latin as some form of penance?! We sit in the cloisters of the Roman Catholic section of the Church of the Nativity and eat our picnic lunch, and then we are joined by Azar’s brother-in-law, Paul, who takes us in our minibus to a workshop that makes many of the olive wood Holy Land articles that you can buy in the various gift shops around Israel-Palestine. It is run by an Arab Christian family and we have a fascinating guided tour of the workshop … and then buy loads of stuff from him because his prices are so reasonable compared to the gift shops for tourists! It is a ‘win win’ situation for everyone!

Jim Binney

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