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Published: June 27th 2017
After much research and anticipation, the day of my Bethlehem excursion had arrived. I like the shepherds and wisemen before me would be making my way to the place where Jesus was born. I had gotten good advice from my fellow pilgrims about what to expect and what bus to take.
The bus, since it would be going into the Palestinian territory, would leave from the Arab bus station just outside of the Damascus Gate. After surveying the scene, I hopped on what I hoped was the correct bus, told the driver I was going to Bethlehem and deposited a few shekles in his hand. I was slightly apprehensive about the security procedure since I was technically leaving Israel.
As the bus made its way to the West Bank I was on the lookout for signs of the menacing wall I had heard so much about, but it was hard to see exactly what they were talking about. There was a simple concrete wall, but it certainly was not as extensive or foreboding as I had imagined. When we got to the checkpoint some Israeli soldiers got on and walked up and down the aisle armed with assault weapons,
but they didn’t really care enough to even look at my passport. After waking up the Palestinian girl in front of me in order to check her papers the soldiers left the bus and we continued onward. Not much fuss at all. I guess they aren’t so much worried about who is leaving Israel, but rather who is coming in.
The bus pulled to a stop on a busy road. Here I was finally in the infamous Palestinian territories. I had been warned that all these taxi guys would be on me as soon as I stepped off the bus, but this was not the case. When I got off people seemed to take no notice. So I began to stride to what I thought was the center of the town, in hindsight I realize I was walking completely in the wrong direction. After about a minute some of the locals who had been just chilling realized hey there’s a huge westerner walking around unaccompanied, how could we have missed him?
A gaggle of them disentangled themselves from their lazy roadside chats and came scampering across the street. Since, it had begun to dawn on me that I
had in fact no idea where I was going I decided to at least get a taxi to at least the Church of the Nativity. Once I agreed to go with one taxi driver he handed me off to a young hot shot driver and we got into his taxi instead. He began to try to sell me on taking this grand tour all around the area, Jericho, the dead sea, you name it, all for a special price for you my friend of course. I settled for something a little more modest. He would drive me to Herodium, Shepherd’s Field, and then drop me off at the Church of the Nativity where I could then walk back on my own to the bus stop. Once agreeing upon this he motioned for me to get out of the cab where he proceeded to walk me to yet another car where I met a third taxi driver named Amir who would actually be the one to show me around. What a process!!
Luckily, I got on great with Amir and we chatted as we zoomed through the dusty roads of Palestine. The first stop was Herodium. Amir waited in the
car as I paid the entrance fee and walked in. It was a tower on a hill in the desert. Actually it was the remains of a great fortress and palace built my Herod the Great. I quickly walked up to the top and walked around. There I had great views of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea in the distance. But being that I was on a Christian pilgrimage I was eager to be on my way to places more meaningful to me like Shepherd’s Field. So I made my way back to the cab and off to the next stop.
We had to race quick because the gates to the Shepherd’s Field would be closing in the next 15 minutes. Once in I could stay as long as I liked. Walking up the wooded path I got my first sense of a spirit of Christmas. This was the place that an angel appeared to a group of shepherds who were tending to their flocks on the hillside, saying ““Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people. Today in Bethlehem a Savior has been born to you. He
is the Messiah, the Lord. If you go you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
I spent a long time under the boughs of a pine tree staring out at the pastural hillside and pondered what it must have been like for the shepherds that night long ago. The mixture of fear and excitement that must of gone through them. What did this all mean? Like them, I was excited too. I would be repeating their faith filled journey. I headed back to the taxi ready to travel to the scene where Jesus was born, the Church of the Nativity. It was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.
There's a star in the East on Christmas morn,
Rise up, shepherd, and follow
It'll lead to the place where the Savior's born
Rise up, shepherd, and follow
Outside the Church of the Nativity I said my goodbye to Amir. He pointed in the direction of the street I would have to walk down to get back to the bus stop later in the day. With that piece of knowledge stowed away I stepped into the Church complex.
The first thing I saw was the pinnacle of all creches I had seen. Here was a life size creche of the Christmas scene outside the church itself. After taking that in I found the tiny door that all must pass through to enter the church. It is called the door of humility because you have to crouch extremely low to enter it, myself especially. You are humbling yourself just as the wisemen did on your way to pay your respects to the newborn savior.
Inside the church was dark, musty, and ancient feeling. I made my way to the very spot where it is said that Jesus Christ entered our world. It is marked by a silver pointed star. Rather, than wait in an interminably long line to touch the star. I sat on a ledge about 5 feet away. I prayed and contemplated the momentous event. God had stolen into the world he had created to redeem all mankind.
It marked the advent of the first Christmas and I felt compelled to make a true Christmas wish. So I lit a candle and placed it upright amongst many in that holy place. Even though December was
long past I have never felt so close to the true spirit of Christmas as I did at that moment.
Back to reality. I now had to find my way back to the bus that would take me back to Jerusalem. I wandered over to the street that Amir had pointed towards. It didn’t look quite right, but having no other clue I started down it. People would occasionally call out to me. It was hard to know when to respond back and when to keep my eyes straight ahead and keep moving. So I did a mixture of both.
The street buzzed with a kind of energy I had never quite felt before. This was an arab street with an arab energy. Along the crowd began to swell a bit at what must have been the true center of the city of modern Bethlehem. I had no idea if I was getting closer or farther away from my goal. Everything looked new and unfamiliar. I had been walking for over 20 minutes, but I kept walking. Walk confidently and fool the world around you. Finally, I came to the busy street where the bus had dropped me off that morning. I had passed the test.
The bus ride back to Israel was a mix of local Palestinians and satisfied tourists. When we came to the checkpoint the bus pulled off to the side this time. Most of the Palestinian passengers got off and lined up outside the bus. I figured that those who knew they had to get off would do so and those who weren’t sure would stay. Again the armed soldiers would walk up and down the aisle, but once again they had no interest in my papers. My face would be my passport. So goes the life of Tommy No Papers.
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