10-13-18 Mt of Olives, Gethsemane and Bethlehem
On Saturday morning we drive up to the mount of olives where we can see the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount from the Jewish cemetery in the east. These are the most expensive grave sites in the world and soon there will be no more available, but this is the point where Jews believe the resurrection will begin and where Christians believe Jesus will return.
Walking down the western slope of the Mount of Olives, following Jesus route on Palm Sunday, we see some first century cave tombs, complete with osuary boxes for the bones of the decomposed family members.
We paused at the Chapel of Dominus Flevet, where Jesus wept over Jerusalem and prophesied its complete destruction by the Romans about 40 years later. We have an excellent view of the Golden Gate through which he most likely entered Jerusalem. The gate as subsequently bricked up and Muslim tombs are placed in front of it. Our guide, Doron, pointed out that in bricking up this entrance, the Muslims unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy contained in Ezekiel 44:1-4. The golden domes of the Russian Orthodox convent of Mary Magdalene are visible though the trees.
There is still an active olive grove where Franciscan nuns harvest the olives from trees, including a couple that could be as much as 2000 years old.
We finally come to the magnificent Church of All Nations constructed in the 1920s at the foot of the Mount of Olives to commemorate the end of WWI and the mistaken belief that Christian nations would no longer go to war against each other. Today, the bigger question might be whether there are any Christian nations.
Getting back on the bus, we leave the mount of olives, driving down the Kidron Valley and head toward Bethlehem which was a sleepy little village four miles south of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, but now has become a virtual suburb of greater Jerusalem, although it is separated by a wall.
We finally arrive at the Church of the Nativity, or traditional birthplace of Jesus. This is very likely the place. What happened in the first century was that Christians were congregating at these sites while Christianity was illegal. To prevent this the Romans would put up pagan shrines to profane the ground in the Christians site. At the time it seemed obvious that the Roman Empire was there to stay, and Christianity was not, so it seemed like a logical thing to do. However, what the pagan Romans inadvertently did was to mark the sites for later generations of Christians who demolished the temples and erected churches in the 4th century. In turn the pre-Muslim Sassanid Persians came through and demolished the churches when they conquered the land in 614 AD. But the Church of the Nativity they left in place because of the frescoes depicting the Persian Magi. So the Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest in modern Israel.
The modern structure is divided and squabbled over by the Roman Catholic Franciscans, the Greek Orthodox, and the Armenians who own the structures to the left, right, and center respectively.
Entering the Church is only possible though a door constructed to force people to bow upon entering.
Due to the massive crowds, we do not go into the actual grotto marking the traditional site of Jesus’ manger, but instead visit the Franciscan Convent of St. Catherine which contains the cave where one of my favorite saints, St. Jerome, created one of the most important pieces of literature in the history of the world – the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible from Greek New Testament and Apocrypha and Hebrew Old Testament.
Coming out of the Church of the Nativity, the muezzin starts the Muslim call to prayer from loudspeakers in the minaret of the Mosque across the street, reminding everyone that Islam is the dominant religion of the area now.
Some enterprising Palestinians set up a coffee house on a street between the bus stop and the Church of the Nativity with a clever name that attracts people to a familiar beverage.