The Road to Bethlehem
Today, we left the Sea of Galilee and journeyed south to Bethlehem. Our drive took us around the East side of the lake, down through the Jordan Valley, and then West through the Judean Wilderness. We passed the ancient city of Jericho and the mountain where Jesus was tempted by the devil after forty days of fasting. Along the way, we passed by several shepherds tending their sheep on parched pastures, as the ramshackle encampments they call home. Soon, we began to climb higher into the mountains, and then, like an oasis in the desert, Jerusalem appeared on the horizon.
In Jesus’ day, Bethlehem was a tiny village a few miles outside of town. Today, it is a sprawling suburb that connects to the main city through adjacent suburbs. Far from the sleepy town that had no room for Mary and Joseph, the Bethlehem of today is a thriving, modern city with busy streets lined with vendors of every kind.
Our first stop was the Church of the Nativity. Owned by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic Churches, this site is the oldest functioning Christian church in the world today. This ancient and beautiful church is crowded with tourists and pilgrims, and as we bowed to enter the low threshold of the Door of Humility, we were greeted by long lines of people awaiting their turn to see the place where Jesus is believed to have been born. As I ducked under yet another low entrance, I descended down three steps into the cave where Mary gave birth to our Savior. This humble dwelling reminded me once again of the lowly way Jesus both entered and left his earthly life. We weren’t able to spend much time here due to the long line, but I had enough time to kneel at this sacred spot and offer a simple prayer: “Lord, thank you for coming to save us.”
Our second stop today was at the Shepherd’s Field. Located just a few miles away, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, this is where it is believed that the angels appeared to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth. There is a large cave here, with a simple altar and several pews. We gathered inside for a moment of worship and prayer before heading into Jerusalem for the night.
As it was in Jesus’ day, Jerusalem remains a city divided by religious and political differences. It is a busy place, filled with commerce, tourists, government buildings, rich and poor. And yet, as in Jesus’ day, it remains a place of hope and promise. Perhaps this is why Jesus chose this place...a place ripe with challenges and opportunities, to begin a life that would show all of us that there is a better way to peace.