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“Ladies and gentlemen, put your cameras away,” our guide yelled into her microphone on the tour bus, followed by a louder, more urgent command, “Guys, no cameras.”

Such was my introduction to Bethlehem, the tranquil city I’d always sung about:

Oh, little town of Bethlehem
how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by…

We had to go through customs to get into Bethlehem on the West Bank, because it is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. We were told an agent might get on the bus and to have our passports available. There’s nothing like a loud little warning to make a group of eighteen adults from the U.S. go silent.

Our bus driver steered us up a narrow winding road that was lined with interesting sights, but I didn’t dare take out my camera until we were off the bus and walking toward the Church of the Nativity.

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A welcome sign nearby

You really want to have cushioned soles on your shoes for the types of walking here. Not for the faint of feet. The original church was built around A.D. 330 (during the time of Constantine the Great), but then mostly destroyed in A.D. 529, and what we see today is primarily a rebuild done soon afterwards.

“Sidewalk” to the church

Information about restoration

Just one of the beautiful icons

Front of church

Altar of the Nativity, a floor above a star marking the spot thought to be site of Jesus’ birth

Descent into the grotto/cave housing the star

The “star” on the floor

Our guide here was a cheerful older man, telling us detailed history about the groups (Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic) wanting to claim the church as their own. Each has separate areas the others can’t transgress. It was easy to get lost in his account of the long-term ongoing dispute and realize the history is much more complex than we were going to understand during this tour.

Inner courtyard of the adjacent Church of St. Catherine

I could not grasp the feeling that I was actually standing where it is thought Jesus was born. The word surreal surfaced often in my mind. Maybe if I were alone in the church and not being given years of information and being propelled along by the crowds, I could have gotten into the mood. It was lovely at one point when our guide invited us to sing, if we wanted, so our group stood in a darkened corner and sang some song, I think it was “Amazing Grace.” I remember tearing up, then.

Leaving the church, also called the Basilica of the Nativity, I was eager to snap some pictures along the narrow road back to customs. I wanted the flavor of the area that didn’t fit the way I’d pictured it at all. We were often reminded that over 2000 years have passed since Biblical times, so what we were seeing was the most recent civilization, so no wonder I felt disoriented. Scenes did not conform to the flip-top easel pictures of my Christian School childhood!

Scenes along the way out:

 

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Once safely through customs (no guard came aboard), I took photos of our driving away.

 

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Over the past few days of Christmas, the images of the Church floated in front of my eyes as I heard this song:

Away in a manger
No crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down his sweet head
The stars in the sky
Look down where he lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay.

I imagined myself back at the Church, erased the noise of the guide and all the people, and focused on the icons of the Nativity. It worked; I was back there, and I could feel the marvelous miracle of what historians and archaeologists are uncovering.

Merry Christmas!