We spent the full day in Bethlehem. Though we have been staying here at the Grand Park Hotel since we arrived, this was the first opportunity actually to see and experience this “little town of Bethlehem.” In the time of Jesus, Bethlehem as a town of 700-800 people. Now there are some 35,000 citizens in a very busy and bustling city that hosts tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists every year – 2016-2017 is no exception.
Father Jamal Khader, the Rector of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary who also teaches at Bethlehem University and is an active participant in inter-religious dialogue, spoke to us about the relationship of religion and politics and how this mingling can affect the social, cultural and political situation in the Holy Land. He suggested that when religion is narrowly appropriated by some believers (Jews, Christians and Muslims alike) and then intermingled with politics, it can lead to defining one’s religious tradition in exclusivists categories, which can eventually lead to acts and systems of injustice an all sides. Father Khader is a leading proponent of interfaith dialogue that will lend itself to a peaceful and just resolution of conflicts that seem to plague this small piece of land to this day. While some (perhaps many) may feel that such a resolution is not possible, Father Khader believes that one’s faith must be lived in hope, always looking for opportunities to discover new paths that lead to a fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise that “the lion and the lamb will lay down together…and there will be no more harm or ruin on [God’s] holy mountain.”
The group then set off for “Shepherd’s Field” with a short stop at a local gift and souvenir shop where we were able to visit a small “atelier” or workshop where local artisans carve olive wood and create stunning works of art as well as smaller pieces that are very popular with visitors to Bethlehem.
Then the bus took us to Shepherd’s Field, the traditional site where the angels announced to the shepherds that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We lingered in a cave, that since the fourth century, has been honored as the place of this visitation by heavenly choirs to simple, poor and ill-regarded shepherds. A sign that Jesus was especially cognizant of and concerned for the poor, the sick, the vulnerable and anyone on the margins of society. The Franciscans have a church above this cave which is dedicated to the angelic visitation and after hearing about the architecture of the building we sang “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.”
By this time we were ready for lunch and stopped at “The Tent,” where we enjoyed a feast of sorts, with traditional dishes and salads served with warm bread (which was in never ending supply), and topped with generous portions of grilled vegetables and meats. We could not end the meal without treating ourselves to baklava.
Heading back to Bethlehem, we stopped at the “Palestinian Heritage Center” where the Maha Saca, the owner and director, spoke to us about the history of the center and its purpose. Inside there is a small display of furniture and implements used in the traditional crafts of needle work and embroidery done in small homes in villages throughout Palestine. The center is a place where women from around Palestine are able to sell their products and gain modest incomes. Maha embroidered a stole for Pope Francis when he was visiting the Holy Land two years ago, and proudly displayed the picture of the pope wearing her beautiful work.