Cana/Bethlehem/Church of the Nativity

We started our day after breakfast early as usual, on the bus the morning prayers and devotional songs were sung and chanted. Our trip for the day according to the schedule sent out to us was going to be first to Shepherd’s Field – as the name suggests it is where the shepherds “watched their flocks by night” when the birth of Jesus occurred. Many of the songs, Christmas carols, passages from the bible and our memories are closely associated with these illusory figures, the shepherds. It was a short walk from where the bus was parked and we managed to see what must have been a field, but now has become urbanized  with all the trappings of buildings except for a plot of land which was supposed to mark the spot the shepherds saw the star. The next stop, walking distance was the church of the Ascension – built and rebuilt over the centuries, dating from the time of Helena the mother of Constantine. It currently is in Muslim jurisdiction as Shehadi explained, but is given religious significance because Jesus is considered a prophet in Islam. We also visited the church of the Immaculate Conception which supposedly is where Mary found out from the angel Gabriel of her virgin pregnancy.

Once we all got on the bus, the next stop was going to be a special one – the site of the first miracle performed by Christ – the one at Cana where water was turned into wine. There is now a Greek Orthodox church built at the site, it being a Sunday there was a service going on and when our group, among others barged in, we were told to leave until the service was over. An irate priest strode out after sometime and raised his voice with “Ela Ela” from what I later on gathered he was telling us to leave or “cut it out” until he allows us back in – so we got out of the church compound and were further instructed that only by noon would we be allowed back in, a  wait of 1 ½ hours. To my mind, even if there was reason to the priest’s ire, it could have been handled better, and I lost any desire in entering the church after that unceremonious eviction, but this is where the groupthink comes into play and from what we were told there was no way we could return to Cana and several in the group wanted to get in the church. The logistics in getting back in after our next stop the Church of Nativity, per Bindu was such not only because of the distance and time it would take us it would be impractical, and so I waited in the bus. From what I gathered from Shyni and the folks who did visit the church in Cana, the renewal of the marriage vows is always a joyful gesture quite apart from the spirituality of visiting the famous site.

From Cana we stopped by to have lunch, the typical Middle Eastern fare of bread, pita, falafel in pita, stuffed vine leaves, there were olives, I believe it was at this time that we had the St.Peter’s fish (tilapia), there was a choice of grilled chicken and assortment of vegetable salads. For our Indian tastes, a bit bland but the advantage in this cuisine is that the food is easy on the stomach, very important especially when traveling.

We were now in Bethlehem and the famous or infamous West Bank Wall was in full sight with all the graffiti, pourings of Palestinian angst. Apart from a Nelson Mandela quote “our freedom will never be complete until the people of Palestine are free”. There was also a large portrait of Leila Khalid, someone who I did not know and only after I read about her that she was a revolutionary figure from decades ago. Also that she was the first woman who attempted an unsuccessful hijacking of an El Al (Israeli airlines) plane, and became a legend of the then nascent movement called the PFLP(Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Leila Khaled is still alive but apparently her views have evolved over the years.

Next stop – The Church of Nativity has 3 monasteries – shared by the Greek Orthodox,  the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic. The church is supposed to be the oldest in Holy Land, built during the time of Constantine and his mother Helena who has been sanctified and was considered to be the architect. According to historical documents this church was later reconstructed by Justinian – a descendant of Constantine, as historically this site has gone through several attempts to destroy it and seems to have survived through the ages. The place was teeming with tourists, people from all parts of the globe. Maybe it was because we were a large group, it did seem that most of the visitors were also part of groups – they had arrived in buses, just like ours in one of several parking lots, each one having 10 to 20 buses which multiplied by 40-50 people indicated the size of the crowds who were there to view the birthplace of Christ. For me the long lines and yes, the feeling that this deifying of the site took away some of spirituality from it was also a reason for my slight discontent. The church, no doubt could be seen as a place of pilgrimage. If all historical evidence points to the actual birth of Christ being there, one has to admit it will draw crowds, just that I was not prepared for it. After the viewing of the birthplace and by the time our group were able to gather again it was more than 3½ hours and it was late in the afternoon. The actual crypt was as can be imagined a very simple resting place depicted by a plated hole, walled by this big church giving it a grandeur that was so removed from what was actually the birthplace of the infant Jesus. After the viewing we were tired and ready to go to our hotel in Bethlehem, dinner and sleep.

Purportedly one of the stone urns from the wedding at Cana

Church of the immaculate conception.

Portrait of Leila Khaled on the West Bank Wall

Restoration work ongoing Church of Nativity.

Crowds in the Church of Nativity

The actual spot, where Jesus was born and what we see today. The Church of Nativity is supposed to be the oldest Christian church.

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