It’s hard to go wrong when you get to spend half a day in Jerusalem and the other half in Bethlehem, as a group of traveling friends and supporters of Baptists Today learned today. We began with a visit to the Mount of Olives, where we could tax our camera batteries, pose for the requisite group photo with the Old City as a background, ride a camel or donkey, and imagine how different it was when Jesus used to walk from Bethany across the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem. On our walk down the Palm Sunday road we stopped to visit a section of the massive Jewish cemetery that continues to add tombs more then 2,000 years after the oldest ones, found at the bottom of the hill. A Jewish belief that when the Messiah comes, he will stand on the Mount of Olives before the resurrection fuels its popularity as a burial site. At Dominus Flevvit, the traditional site at which Jesus wept over Jerusalem, we paused to consider the hardness of human hearts, and to wonder to what extent Jesus weeps over us. Devotional thought gave way to a spate of bargaining as group members dickered for Cashmere scarves on the steeply descending road, then turned left into the grounds of the Garden of Gethsemane, a site that has been revered since the time of Jesus.
A quick bus ride brought us to the Davidson Center at the Southern Steps, where we climbed some of the same steps Jesus could have climbed if he had entered the temple from the south, through the Huldah Gate.
We read from two psalms that are called “Songs of Ascent,” and which may have been sung by pilgrims as they made their way to worship during the festivals. The second half of the day took us to Bethlehem, where we drove through the ugly wall that separates Bethlehem — which is part of the West Bank — from Israel. At Bethlehem Bible College we enjoyed a delicious lunch and settled in for a listen and learn session with Alex Awad, former dean of students at the college and head of its humanitarian outreach arm, the Shepherd’s Society.
The session provided a needed opportunity for us to learn about the ongoing strife in Israel from the point of view of a Palestinian Christian leader who has known much suffering and prejudice, but who maintains a charitable spirit and an enduring hope for peace between the Palestinians who have lost so much of their land, and the Jewish settlers who are allowed to continue squeezing them into ever-smaller spaces behind tall walls and security fences.
From the college we wound through narrow and crowded streets to the Church of the Nativity, which claims to be the oldest church in existence, and shows its age. The church — which houses Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic spaces — is undergoing renovations with scaffolding that renders its usually dark interior even more foreboding. The church is built over a tiny grotto that an old tradition claims to have been the birthplace of Jesus, with a 14-pointed silver star marking the supposed spot. After crowding into a small underground chapel commemorating St. Jerome, who translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into what became known as the Latin Vulgate, we paused to smell the roses in a small garden before heading off to shop — already in the dark at 4:45 p.m. — before returning to Ramat Rachel for another enjoyable dinner and some time for relaxing. Some of us, I believe, needed it.