Over the last few days we have gone beyond introductions and orientation and entered more into the content of the biblical formation programme. We have had two mornings of input on the Gospel of Mark by Dr Mark McVann fsc, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California, USA. His lectures will continue throughout the programme. As well, we will be visiting sites which commemorate events mentioned in the Gospels. And we have started doing that also.
On Thursday afternoon, 5 June, we had an excursion to Ein Karem in the “hill country of Judea” (cf Lk 1:39. 65). And it really is quite hilly country. Here is a view through the trees of a Russian Convent across the other side of the valley.
The village of Ein Karem is traditionally the place where Elizabeth and Zachariah, the parents of John the Baptist, are said to have lived. So it is the place that commemorates the Visitation as told in Luke 1:39-45.
Mary Visits Elizabeth
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
The wall in the background features many rectangular ceramic plates, each giving the words, in many languages, of Mary’s song of praise and thanksgiving, called the Magnificat.
Mary’s Song of Praise
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Across the other side of the valley, in the same village of Ein Karem, is a Church of St John BaHarim (St John in the Mountains) which commemorates the birth of St John the Baptist.
I am sure the precisely indicated location as inscribed in Latin in the circle underneath the altar, translated as “Here was born the precursor of the Lord” is quite imaginative, but the New Testament (Lk 1:57ff) does affirm that the birth took place in the “hill country of Judea” where Ein Karem and the church are located.
The Birth of John the Baptist
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
The walls of the forecourt here have similar ceramic tablets as in the forecourt of the Church of the Visitation, but this time they record in many languages Zachariah’s song of praise and thanksgiving, known as the Benedictus.
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior[g] for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon[h] us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
In Ein Karem we also visited the Guest House of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion (the same group who run Ecce Homo in Jerusalem and are conducting the programme in which I am participating – for more information see http://www.biblicalformation.org/eng/ . We learned more about their founder and their charism. They have a special concern for fostering better relations with the Jews (for more information see http://www.notredamedesion.org/en/index.php?T=0). We had a Eucharist in their chapel there followed by dinner. In the chapel, there was a lovely small statue of St Joseph teaching Jesus the Torah. Note that in accord with Jewish custom, both man and child are wearing the kippah, as traditionally worn by Jewish males.
Today, Friday 6th of June, we visited Bethlehem. This involved crossing over through a checkpoint in the infamous dividing wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Bethlehem, meaning “house of bread” (implicit reference to food, nourishment, life, eucharist), as you all know, is the traditional place for the birth of Jesus, as recounted in Luke 2:1-7.
The Birth of Jesus
2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
There is another account in Matthew’s Gospel (1:18-25):
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[i] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, this building too reflects the divisions in the church, with sections apportioned to different denominations, Greek, Armenian and Latin (Roman Catholic). The door to the Church complex (at the far end of the Manger Square, more or less centre of the photo) is very low, so that one has to stoop to enter. The roof of the Church is being renovated/repaired, so the interior walls and roof were covered over so there was not a lot to see. There was a Mass in progress in the “grotto” which marks the traditional site where Jesus was born, so we were not allowed to enter there. Again, like that of John the Baptist in Ein Karem, the precise location of the actual, historical place of birth of Jesus is somewhat imaginative, but that is not the point. Scripture testifies that he was born in Bethlehem, of the house of David, thus fulfilling the prophecy that the Messiah would be of David’s house. However, there are a lot of other grottoes in the crypt of the church which were not being used and we were able to visit them.
Of particular interest especially to the biblical scholar among us, Mark McVann, but to all of us who follow its testimony, was the discovery in a grotto in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity of the tomb of St Jerome, a brilliant scholar, linguist of the fourth and early fifth century, who translated the Bible into Latin (known as the Vulgate, still the official text of the Bible today), and is a Doctor of the Church (for more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome )
Later, we visited the Catholic Church on ground level. I particularly liked the stained glass windows at front and back of the church.
Then we progressed to what is known as “Shepherd’s Field”. This of course is the traditional site where angels appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of the child in Bethlehem, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 2:8-20):
The Shepherds and the Angels
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
There is a chapel that marks the site:
Naturally, given the announcers in the story, angels feature prominently in the church in Shepherd’s Field, as you can see on the facade of the church above the entrance door. Here is a close-up:
And angels feature prominently inside too! Here’s two of the angels around the dome of the church, below them, in Latin, the message they proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will!”
There are caves below the church, all of which have been turned into grottoes, with pews for people to pray and altars for offering the Eucharist.
And of course, there had to be shepherds too! I really liked this fountain, with sheep and shepherd.
Here’s a close-up of the shepherd, so that you can see why I like him; he looks like a Bedouin!
Finally, we paid a visit to Bethlehem University (http://www.bethlehem.edu), the only Catholic University in Israel. It is committed to serving the Palestinian people. 70% of the students are Muslim and 30% are Christian.
We met some of the Salesian staff who gave us a tour of the facility. The chapel was particularly impressive, with the theme of the young Jesus, reflecting the Salesian commitment to serve and educate the young. The statue of Christ at the top of the sanctuary is of Jesus as a “street kid” i.e. a young boy; the paintings along the side walls are of young people around the world who have been martyred, including their names; the paintings on the roof are of major events and personalities in the Bible; the stained glass windows are of events in the early life of Jesus and his parents.
The Vice-Chancellor met us and thanked us for our visit which he said showed solidarity with the Palestinian people. He and other staff members shared some of the history of the University and the challenges it faces. This was brought home to us in a short film. We also met with a couple of Palestinian students who shared their hopes and aspirations. From all that we saw and heard, it is evident that the Palestinian people face many difficulties from the political conflict which surrounds them – the controversial wall which separates the Palestinian Territories (and which Israeli authorities claim has reduced terrorist attacks), random check points, harassment by Israeli police forces (including entering homes and imprisoning people), restricted access to travel, jobs and other opportunities in Israel and beyond, the very high rate of unemployment in Palestine (40%), the provocation of Israeli settlements and much more. We can only hope and pray that the leaders on both sides do not give in to partisan interests but serve the genuine interests of all their people, Palestinian and Israeli, Jew, Christian and Muslim.
Here is a view of the Palestinian territory, looking towards Jerusalem, from the balcony of Bethlehem University. The wall can be seen in the middle of the photo, snaking its way both north and west, with the crowded congestion on the Palestinian side and open land on the Israeli side.
Here is a close-up of the wall, quite of bit of the graffiti on the Palestinian side showing disdain.
And there was opportunity for shopping too, in a souvenir shop run by a cooperative of Palestinian families. Buying their goods is one way of showing support and providing income for families who are struggling under harsh economic conditions. However, being more of a “pilgrim” than a “tourist”, I deigned to make any purchases. So don’t expect any gifts on my return to Australia. But here’s some photos that show what is available!
I am enjoying the programme through which I am entering more into the Gospel and the places.
Shalom, Peace, Salaam.