Thursday, December 21, 2006

Birthday in Bethlehem (Holy Land #11 of 14)

Where is the best place or most unique place you have ever been for your birthday? For my wife, Laura, it was Bethlehem (Israel, not Pennsylvania!). Imagine celebrating your birthday in the same city where Jesus was born! Even our guide sang “Happy Birthday” to her in Arabic.

Obviously, Bethlehem does not look anything today like it would have back then. Its population when Jesus was born was probably no more than 700 people. Due to the census, there were probably twice as many people packed into this small town when Mary and Joseph arrived after the long trip from Nazareth. All the guest rooms would have been filled. Each home was built on top of a grotto or cave that was used for storage and/or for animals. It was in one of these grottos, not a wooden stable as we think of in America, that someone allowed Joseph and the laboring Mary to stay for the night.

Today this site is marked with the Church of the Nativity built over it. There are several grottos underneath this church. We were in one grotto called Jerome’s grotto. It was in this very grotto that Jerome spent over 20 years of his life translating the Bible into the Latin Vulgate, the language of the people. Jerome is also buried in this special grotto.

As we entered down into another grotto we were able to see where tradition says the exact place is where Jesus was born and then wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in manger hewn out of rock. There is a 14 point star, called the Bethlehem star, which marks the location of His birth. This is from Matthew 1:17 that reads that there were 14 generations from Abraham to David…14 generations from David to the Exile…and 14 generations from the Exile to Jesus. With all of the gaudiness and glitter of the religion that surrounds this spot, it was almost impossible to really get an accurate feel as to what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph that night when Jesus was born. Yet, to be in the place were God was born was still special and significant.

We then went to the Shepherds Field. Here we went down into a grotto on the hillside where the Shepherds would have kept their sheep at night and stood watch over them outside the entrance. Here the angels would have appeared to these humble shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus and directing them into Bethlehem where they would find and worship the baby Jesus. This grotto was very much what the grotto Jesus was born in must have been like. Here we could all wrap our minds around the miracle of Christmas. What a thrill it was to stand in this grotto in Bethlehem as a group and sing together the carol, “O Come All Ye Faithful!” I will never look at Christmas (or Laura’s birthday for that matter) the same after this trip to Bethlehem.

We then had lunch at a Lebanese sandwich shop humorously called “The Christmas Tree Restaurant.” At lunch our guide and bus driver surprised Laura and presented a cake to her which they had bought in Bethlehem and we all sang “Happy Birthday” to her again. Now folks, that’s a birthday to remember, wouldn’t you agree?

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