Our large tour bus was parked on a city street and we walked up to the Church of the Nativity, a basilica built over the cave where it is believed Jesus was born. Yes, cave! One of the interesting things we learned is that Mary & Joseph most likely found lodging in a cave, not a wooden stable structure like we see so prevalently represented in modern Christmas. The prevalence of caves in this region makes this assertion much easier to imagine. These caves were the places many families (and shepherds) used for shelter of their animals at night.
In order to enter the Church of the Nativity, patrons must bow down and walk through the Door of Humility. It is the only entrance and despite more practical historical explanations of the reason the door is so small, the act of going low in order to enter was not lost on me.
Despite the simplicity outside, there is much activity (adornments, people, lines) inside. After waiting our turn, we were able to crouch down and touch the 14 point silver star that is placed over the Grotto of the Nativity--the place it is widely held that Jesus was born.
As we exited the place, I struggled with the fact that the very tourism that allowed us to visit this spot, has also made this once simple place so overdone. Next to elaborate ancient candelabra were modern heat lamps, and inside massive chandeliers were spiral shaped, energy efficient bulbs. The contrast really spoke to me about how humans can take the simple, holiest truths and overdress them with our excessive interventions.
After the church, our tour guide took us to the much more serene Shepherds Fields. Here he sought to explain the likely conditions of Jesus' birth in a much more contextual way.
As we entered a real ancient cave (one of many) we were treated to a powerful lesson about shepherds. We also saw a stone manger that animals would have used to eat from while in the shelter of a cave. It was surreal to imagine a baby safely placed here to sleep.
After so much talk of 'ancient stones,' it was time to go and meet living stones. We drove a very short distance to a nearby resort to see Young Life ministry in action. This hotel is used to bring over 800 students and families to camp each year. We were greeted with camp-style welcome complete with drums, men in costume and smiling faces.
There is a large swimming pool with colorful water slides and even an astroturf field. As a striking reminder that life here is quite different than our own, high fences stood along the property edge separating this place from a Jewish settlement on the other side.
In addition to our group, there were 20-30 people from a state run orphanage for children who had been abandoned by their families due to special needs. As we played games, danced, sang and enjoyed lunch together I was moved to tears repeatedly. THIS is exactly the kind of place where Jesus would be with the most marginalized of the marginalized....in a Middle Eastern village surrounded by orphans with special needs and their caretakers. There were even physical fences surrounding us as a reminder. By many accounts these people were not good for much in the world--and yet these are exactly who He tells us to love. What a humbling privilege!
I will never forget this day!