We have entered the Palestinian Authority again, this time to visit Bethlehem. Going through the checkpoint is easy for a tour bus, but the high towers and concertina wire show it's far more difficult for a Palestinian.
We pick up our new guide, a middle-aged Christian woman with a heavy accent and a kind look. Our bus parks at the bus depot, and we take the escalator up to the next floor and walk out onto the street. Bethlehem is a vibrant town, closely packed amidst the hills south of Jerusalem. The older part looks similar to the new part. I can't seem to see where one ends and the other begins.
But the first thing we notice is an unusual coffee shop. See the difference?
We walk up to Manger Square. It's rather ordinary, but our guide explains what this will look like on Christmas Eve. The church ahead is also quiet, and under renovations. We dip our heads down to pass through the tiny door. It has become increasingly smaller as the centuries go by, and various conquerors have their way with the church. But, we're told, it's the oldest church in Israel, thanks to one mosaic which depicts the Wise Men as Persians and when the Persians came to destroy the church in the 7th century, they saw the mosaic and out of respect, spared the church.
We make our way down to the cave below. The manger was not a shed, but a cave, why we will learn later in the day. It's a small room, about 12 by 8 feet, with a 14 point star revealing the original floor.
Worn smooth by countless fingers touching it, the spot of stone is to some the exact birthplace of Christ. But our guide warns us that it could have been anywhere in this cave. A small Catholic service is going on in a tiny alcove, but with a our whispers, we don't seem to disturb them. We learn that the manger Jesus slept in was made of stone, too. Wood is too precious in this dry country.
One of our group asks about the Tomb of the Holy Innocent, and it turns out that our guide is a friend of the current caretaker and she arranges for a rare and privileged visit. Even she has not had a visit to this heart-rending area of the church.
We're told that when the church was built in the 4th century, the Empress Helen, the mother of Constantine, heard that the locals said there should be a tomb for the first martyrs for Christ -- the young boys killed by Herod. So she ordered that the bones be gathered up along with their mothers' bones (for most were killed to defending their babies and I am sure there were some fathers in there, too) and a special tomb was created for them. It was found recently, and the some of the bones remain on display. I won't post a photo, but the exact number of boys runs between 20-60, not in the thousands as tradition has stated. It's sad to stand down there and look upon those tiny bones, and the ossuaries that hold the rest of them.
Oddly, it's not until I am on the plane home that I realize that this very tomb, with all these tiny bones and markers and archeological evidence is proof of Jesus's earthly existence. It is still sad as I think on that place. I hadn't considered these boys to be the first martyrs, but they are.
Outside, we return to our bus and go to the Shepherd's Field. It's a small valley nearly completely surrounded by Bethlehem. The Bedouin still raise sheep there and there, in a cave, we learn some extraordinary things about the 23th Psalm.