You know how some things get lost in translation, especially in writing. So I'm hoping this works. Funny thing happened on the way to the manger...
We got over to the Church of the Nativity before the lines were too long because our tour guide is the man! He knows the ropes. And we do have to wait in the que, but it's nothing like the 2 hour line at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That was so brutal I opted out.
So anyway, there's a small tour group next to us and we are just at the point where you descend into the lower levels of the church to get to the grotto where, according to tradition, Jesus was born. We're getting ready to go down the stairs and this guy gets alarmed and says to his tour guide, "Why are we going downstairs? I thought he was born in a barn!"
The tour guide gives a sympathetic patient smile and replies, "He was born in a barn.
And it's a cave."
The guy locks eyes with the tour guide and you can just hear his wheels turning. He's turning this over in his head and he waits a full 2-3 beats before he blurts out, "Huh!"
And so down we go. When you get there, you get to kneel in pairs to say your prayers over the little slab of rock in the starburst brass frame on the floor, surrounded by candles. And this is how they display the exact spot where tradition says the very hope of the world was born.
10 feet away is what they call the manager, the spot where Our Lady, Mother Mary, wrapped her baby--that same hope--in some rags and laid him down. There's not a lot to see to be honest, not what I had in mind. I posted the pictures on the church's Facebook.
Check out the pictures, but just know that the whole thing was over in about 2 minutes, beginning to end. We saw the cave, we saw the manger, take your picture, Baby Jesus loves you! Next!
Yes, it was cool to be there on Ash Wednesday! Yes, it does not escape me that we are in Bethlehem where, according to tradition, this whole thing began. It's very cool!
There just doesn't seem to be enough time to linger and give it some proper respect. Like, there isn't even time to let it to sink in before we have to scoot out of the way. The poor guy who wants to see a barn was probably really disappointed. Expectations shattered.
Now, it's s whole different thing 30 minutes later at the Shepherds' Field. It's not as crowded. We get to hang out for a bit and ponder the tradition of the Proclamation to the Shepherds. I hear Linus from A Charlie Brown Christmas in my head narrating the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night...because you can look over the Shepherds' Hill and see right to the top of the rise where the Church of the Nativity is and it's like not even a mile away. 15 minutes on foot, max.
I imagine that star blazing in the sky. And I get my moment here. Not at the manger, but in the light rain in a park outside yet another church built over yet another grotto with an alter commemorating the shepherds. And the Spirit comes when you least expect it.
We saw some disturbing things today. See for yourself in the pictures. We spent a lot of time along The Wall. Graffiti everywhere. Guard towers manned by the Israeli army. Barbed wire. We watched a video of soldiers harassing the refugee camp. Kids throwing rocks at the soldiers. Soldiers firing tear gas grenades into the playground of the school.
We heard stories of raids and clashes for no reason. Shatha, the 24-year-old Palestinian director of the children's center at the refugee camp, is a resident of the camp herself. Grew up there. Found her way to college on scholarships. Met a boy in the camp and came back there to marry him.
She tells the story of her husband getting arrested a couple weeks after their wedding. He got arrested for posting something political on his Facebook. They came and rounded him up, beat him up, and took him to jail.
So she spends 13 hours on the round trip to see him for 10 minutes in jail. But it was worth it, she says. "Most girls dream of their honeymoon, but I got a honeyjail!" And she giggles.
On my way in to the refugee camp, I saw a bucketful of spent teargas grenade cartridges that the kids collected. The shadow of the wall, and the guard towers, and the barbed wire. And my expectations were all set. It was a bummer.
But hope shatters those expectations.
Hope in Shatha's joke. Hope in the kids learning their dances in the camp. Hope in the music lessons. Hope for peace because kids are resilient. It's what they know.
Soldiers, barbed wire, the wall, no running water for days, and teargas. It's a way of life. But they soldier on building lives in laughter, joy, music, dance and being a kid. Because it comes when you least expect it.
The Spirit has a funny way of meeting us where we are. In the refugee camp. On the shepherds' hill. Even for the fraction of a second on our knees at the shrine to the hope of the world! I just missed it because it does come. I know that!
It comes when you least expect it.
Thank God it comes!
Grace and peace on Ash Wednesday from the Holy Land,