After yet another lavish hotel breakfast buffet, we headed for the Bethlehem Souvenir Center, a cooperative store and gallery which features the high-quality work of local Bethlehem craftspeople (olive wood statuary and Nativity sets, malachite jewelry, local pottery, etc.) and directly assists more than 50 Christian families in the area. The staff was welcoming, professional, and friendly-- and we had the entire shop to ourselves for the hour we were there. Needless to say, our group made its contribution to the local economy, and those of us with pent-up consumer urges emerged content.
Shepherds' Field area to celebrate Eucharist at one of the caves surrounding the Gloria In Excelsis chapel (above), built in the 1950s with donations by the Catholics of Canada. As is the norm with each of the major shrines in the Holy Land, we celebrated the readings for the day. (Translation: Merry Christmas, everyone!). True to the feast, we sang our favorite Christmas carols, and even had a procession of a statue of the infant Jesus. It was a gently touching moment in what was to be an intense day.
Our next stop was the Church of the Nativity, presently undergoing major interior structural repairs. We arrived relatively early at the shrine, which means we didn't have to stand outside in the hot sun. Instead, we gathered along the side aisle to approach the grotto marking the space where, according to tradition, Jesus was born. I have to admit, it was not an especially pleasant wait.
This is, after all, the Middle East, which means that the concept of standing in an organized queue is not universally respected. The upshot is that we had to deal with crowds of noisy and aggressive pilgrims pushing, pleading, and sometimes cussing their way through the waiting area. Once we got to the grotto, there was time for just a quick reverence, and then out. Only when we arrived at the neighboring sanctuary of the Roman Catholic parish church of St. Catherine of Alexandria did we have any time to savor the spot. It was all part of the tuition, so to speak.
Afterwards, we visited a family-owned restaurant aptly known as The Christmas Tree. Lunch was shawrma (thinly sliced lamb on pita), falafel (chick pea), and the ubiquitous Greek salad.... Once we finished our late luncheon, we left Bethlehem, passing through the security checkpoint without difficulty.
Our next stop was the Holy City of Jerusalem. We made our way directly to our hotel, the Dan Panorama, with just enough time to check in and freshen up before proceeding to the Old City and the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre. Our bus dropped us off in front of the Notre Dame Hotel, a Vatican-owned property festooned with papal flags in anticipation of the visit of Pope Francis. From there, we walked through the New Gate and into the rabbit-warren of narrow streets of the Old City. Luckily, the hour was late-- 6pm by the time of our arrival-- so that the streets were uncrowded and many of the shops closed for the day.
Approaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we gathered on the steps outside to prepare ourselves for our official group photo. (This one, below, is a practice shot only). Afterwards, we lined up in rows of three before the main entrance to wait for the Franciscan friars to greet us at the door and escort us into the Church and before the Tomb of the Lord.
I don't have good photos of that event. The truth is that I was so caught up in the experience of the moment, I was not especially concerned with trying to document or preserve it. (Others did, and when I can borrow a few photos from them, I will post their photos with this entry). Shortly after six, a group of about 6-8 Franciscan friars appeared before the open main door. They nodded, smiled, and blessed each of us with holy water as they led us in procession before the tomb. The crowds parted as we were guided into the sanctuary flanked by the friars. Once assembled inside, we were greeted by a representative of the Custos (or Provincial), who told us that, no doubt our visit should be inscribed in "beautiful golden letters" since we were the last group to visit the Church before the scheduled arrival of Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew. After chants, prayers, and a blessing-- all in Latin-- we were escorted in groups of three to the interior chamber of the Tomb for a few moments of silent prayer.
I cannot tell you what that experience was like for each of the more than forty people on our pilgrimage. What I can tell you about is the look on people's faces as they emerged from the Tomb. Almost to a person, each one carried a look of deep reverence, and yes, even awe. Silent tears streaked some faces; others just moved to a quiet corner of the church to be alone with the Lord for a few minutes. We left in silence. As one member whispered to me: "You can just feel the sacredness of this space, depending upon how much you allow yourself to do so."