Destination: Bethlehem (Palestine)

Church of the Nativity
For a post-Christmas treat, I thought I would share my trip to Bethlehem last October. As part of a theology class at Notre Dame, we traveled to Israel to 1) explore Christian-Jewish relations in the post-Vatican II world; 2) probe Israeli-Palestinian relations; and 3) pilgrimage/sightsee.

Our hearty crew consisted of 8 theology students, 2 film majors, and our fearless leaders Prof. Todd Walatka and graduate student Hannah. The photos aren't the greatest quality, as I relied on my Blackberry back then, but enjoy nonetheless.

Birthplace of Jesus

Our guide went into some detail, explaining the history of Jesus' birth and verifying the exact location the event. He chided us Westerners for our naive Nativity sets, making the birth appear as if it was in a barn. Instead, he explained, Mary and Joseph would have taken refuge in a cave commonly used by shepherds if the inns had indeed been all full. 

When the empress Helena roamed through the Holy Land from 326-328, she built many churches on top of the sites important to Christianity. Though many of this were destroyed through the years, new churches were usually built on top. Thus, the guide felt confident that the Church of the Nativity did, in fact, mark the actual spot of Jesus' miraculous birth. The picture at the top of the post shows the front of the church, which was both impressive and decrepit at the same time.

Spot that tradition says Jesus was born. A similar marking a few meters away show where he was (traditionally) placed in the manger. This was in a preserved cave beneath the Church of the Nativity.
Church of Saint Catherine, next door to the Church of the Nativity
Chapel in St. Jerome's cave (where he translated the Bible into Latin). Located just next to the Church of the Saint Catherine
The Shepherds' Fields and Grotto

The traditional place where the angels spoke to the shepherds, heralding the birth of Jesus, the Shepherds' Fields were a nice break from the tourist crowds around the Church of the Nativity. Our guide told us that there are three potential sites for this event, which we could mostly see from this vantage point up on the hill. An extensive cave system was being excavated, evidence of the sleeping quarters that the shepherds would use. The church commemorating the site was quite lovely as well.

The Wall

Today is not the day to engage in any Israeli-Palestinian debate. However, the wall is a very significant feature in this, and we spent some time walking along it (and going through customs through part of it).

The most striking and fascinating aspect for me was the graffiti. Most of it had writings in English and other images that would be very familiar to Western audiences. Our guide noted multiple times that Banksy, perhaps the most well-known graffiti artist today, visits the wall every now and then to illustrate his views on Palestinian suffering (the tour guide's words).

Locally known as the Separation fence or the Separation barrier, the Wall that separates Israel from Palestine illustrates the strain of relations between the two peoples

UN refugee camp. It was not in very good shape physically, and had evolved into its own little community over the years

It was an amazing trip on many levels, and our trip over to Bethlehem was definitely a highlight. Being able to connect Bible stories with actual places really elevates the level at which one can understand the history of these narratives.

Falafel, absolutely delicious