Holy Land Day 3: Bethlehem and Jericho

In today's post, Bishop John writes:

We arrived into Bethlehem late yesterday evening and were warmly welcomed by Laila and her team at the Manger Square Hotel. Greetings were exchanged and our important presence to the Christian community emphasised. The journey south from Mount Tabor was uneventful though the final stretch of the winding road with its hairpin bends from Bethany to Bethlehem reminded me of the film The Italian Job. People commented on the stark contrast between the calm of Galilee and the busyness of the towns on the West Bank.   

Calls to prayer at 4.30 am echoed out from the minarets and some pilgrims walked down to the Basilica at 6am. Prayer was quiet and peaceful in St Catherine’s Church while the Greek Orthodox prayed their Eucharist at the altar of the basilica. Sadly, for this year's pilgrims, much of the basilica is shrouded in plastic sheeting which enables much needed repairs to take place.

The morning began with a visit to the Shepherds’ Fields. As part of morning prayer we sang ‘Angels we have heard on high’… and thought of Christmas as we drove to the fields. The shepherds rejoiced when they heard the message of the angels and then rushed to see the child Jesus in Bethlehem, a name meaning home of bread. We reflected that he is our Bread of Life and in him we trust for nourishment and life.

Looking across the valley we reflected with insight from our guide on the complex history of Israel and Palestine and the present political situation. I read the statement from Bishop Declan Lang and Bishop Christopher Chessun on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. It spoke powerfully of the desire for the two-state solution for which so many long: ‘We renew our call on the UK government, to recognise the right of the Palestinian people to belong to a state on their own lands, next to the state of Israel. Only justice for both peoples will lead to the reconciliation for which we pray with the Christian Church in the Holy Land.’

A flat tyre prevented our departure for the desert where we were to celebrate Mass. Instead we celebrated at the Shepherds’ Fields and Fr John Farrell preached powerfully about Jesus the Good Shepherd and the way in which the shepherd calls his sheep and they listen to his voice so that he can lead them from one watering hole to the next fertile pasture where they will find refreshing water to drink. The sheep depend utterly on their shepherd for food and water. Fr John gave a new and much richer perspective to the familiar story which invites us to follow Jesus in whom we are to trust totally.

With a replacement bus, we headed to Jericho for lunch. En route we stopped in the Judean desert overlooking St George’s Monastery deeply built into the rocky mountainside (pictured above). The life of the monks reminds me of the need for silence and solitude in the midst of a busy life. After lunch we headed to the baptism site of Jesus which was sadly locked and closed. Baptismal promises were renewed on the coach. The afternoon provided a time of rest and relaxation as some chose to wallow in the salty Dead Sea and enjoyed the buoyancy and healthy relaxation. Words like ‘fab’ and ‘wonderful’ were used.

As day 3 ends, we prepare to move to Jerusalem and are reminded of the words spoken by Jesus after his transfiguration. He told his disciples that they would need to descend from Tabor, learn to carry the cross and walk towards Calvary. In the midst of our pilgrimage we hear the stories of suffering and pain: in family life, in the brokenness of divided Christianity, in the suffering of isolation and unresolved political issues. The words of the prayer come to mind: ‘We adore you O Christ and we praise you because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.’ He is our hope. On this Friday we look towards the joy of the Sunday of Resurrection.