Monday, June 19, 2017

Merry Christmas from Bethlehem in June!

We were enroute to Bethlehem yesterday morning when we took the Hebron Road and just to the North of us was where David fought the Philistines in 1004 BC. Does that even compute when I say those words? It seems inconceivable to be in the places I've only read about all my life. God has blessed me way more than I deserve to be in this place of so many victories won by our God Almighty.

Today was the first time we were given time to shop, but it was intentional because this is a spiritual journey of increasing our faith and seeing all these holy places, and it has certainly has done just that. Our guide took us purposely to a Bethlehem shop where Christians run it, and what we purchase there feeds their families. Christians have had a tough time making it here and so many have evacuated from this sacred city. It was a joy to buy presents on our Merry Christmas Day in Jerusalem. After our shopping excursion, we headed to Church of the Nativity for our Christmas Day mass and communion. How memorable it was to sing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful", "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "Silent Night". So in tune with the spirit of Christmas, were the children's choir (kids accompanying their parents on this trip) that led us in singing. Presents, Christmas Carols, children, and worshipping the King here in the actual cave of Christ's birth -- made for a heavenly Christmas in June!

The Gospel reading was from John 1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

Just think of it -- the God from the beginning of time that created everything and His light was born here in this cave. Fr. Paul gave us a beautiful Christmas message: "May we allow THE WORD to resonate within us. Plant the seeds of peace. Celebrate Christmas everyday. We've been to many holy places, and those holy places are wonderful to remind us of the past. But there is nothing to compare with Jesus Christ Himself as we receive Him in communion."

At the Church of the Nativity, Christian pilgrims from around the world come to pay tribute and honor to God for the birth of His Son, Jesus. We were among many on this day. also. Truly a STAR was born when Christ was born, and we made our way down to the grotto via narrow stairs to get inside the cave. There above that holy place is a star that marks the location. In our deepest humility and thanksgiving for the Star of all Stars, we touched or bent low to kiss that star. It was a profoundly emotional and spiritual experience, to say the least -- the birthplace of our Savior over 2000 years ago. Our guide said, "Say thank You, Jesus, for my salvation!" He went on to tell us that lambs were swaddled in cloths when they were brought for sacrificial offerings. In our Lord's case, He was the perfect lamb, and as scripture reads, "He was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in the manger." The manger was just a short distance from the star.

After that moving experience, we headed to lunch at an Arabic restaurant, Abu Shanab (The Father of Moustache) and had the most delicious lamb and chicken kabobs, hummus and other lovely veggies with baklava for dessert. Our meals have been so yummy! Here I am in a photo with Father Moustache himself. LOL!

After lunch we headed to the Shrine of the Visitation. -- where Mary, now with child, went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth at Gabriel's insistence. We read in Luke 1 that Elizabeth and her husband had dearly longed for a child. They had prayed for one and the culture of the day had demanded they needed one. Yet no child came. Zacharias was a priest. One day as he was serving in the temple the angel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that his wife would have a child. Although Zacharias was moved by the awesome presence of the angel, he could not accept that his aged wife could still give birth. Could you blame him? In order to stop him confessing his unbelief, the angel struck him dumb. The angel's promise eventually happened and a pregnant and rather embarrassed Elizabeth hid herself for 5 months. She would have hid for longer if the angel had not intervened again.

Angel Gabriel alerted Mary about the pending birth of Elizabeth's child. Mary hastened to her place to see her. By this time Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant. On arriving at Elizabeth's place, the moment Mary spoke, the baby (John the Baptist) in Elizabeth's womb moved. The Holy Spirit came upon Elizabeth and she blessed Mary with these words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Then Mary's magnificat began -- her song from verse 46: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has been mindful of the humble state of His servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me -- holy is His name. His mercy extends to those who fear Him; from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their throne, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and His descendants forever, just as He promised our ancestors.”

Those were the words that Hannah said when she gave birth to Samuel. Mary must have been an "honor student" of God's Word. We made our way up 115 steps to the Church of the Annunciation to see the place of the annunciation. How alive the scriptures came to us in this place.

Then we went back down and up another hill to St. John the Baptist Church that marks the spot over which Elizabeth gave birth to him.

Elizabeth had a vital role to play in the plan of God. If she had 'given up' on God because of her barrenness she would have forfeited her "God given role". We may not always understand God but we should never cease trusting him.

We have continued to be stunned by the reality of our heritage. History speaks for itself and it sure has been speaking loud and clear to us about our beloved saints and their roles in our own journeys of faith.
Stay tuned for the excitement of our day tomorrow....Jerusalem, Mt of Olives, Palm Sunday, Gethsemane -- I almost lose my breath.....just at the thought of being in those sacred places! Shalom, my beloved friends and family!