Jesus’ earthly life began in Bethlehem and ended in Jerusalem. The “Bible Lands Study Tour” group from Campbell University Divinity School visited those cities in reverse order May 26, reliving moments of both sorrow and joy.
We began the day atop the Mount of Olives for a scenic overview of the Old City, then worked our way down the Palm Sunday road, through a Jewish cemetery, and to the courtyard of a church called “Dominus Flevit,” the traditional spot where Jesus once wept for the people of Jerusalem. Dr. Barry Jones led us in a thoughtful devotion there, remarking that one thing we all have in common with Jesus is that we cry, a shared experience of suffering that helps us appreciate Jesus’ humanity, as well as God’s deep concern for all people.
We continued deeper into the Kidron Valley until we reached the Garden of Gethsemane, where a few ancient olive trees and a large church mark the spot traditionally associated with Jesus’ pain-filled prayer on the night in which he was arrested.
Saving the inside of the Old City for Saturday, we again boarded our bus to visit an ancient example of a tomb sealed by a rolling stone, than again for a short ride to Bethlehem. There we met Bishara Awad, president of the Bethlehem Bible College, and his brother Alex, the dean of students and author of Palestinian Memories. After delivering some donated items and taking a brief tour of the college, we enjoyed a nourishing lunch of rice and green beans cooked with bits of beef, along with a salad of tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers.
After lunch, Bishara Awad (left) told us the impressive story of Bethlehem Bible College’s birth and growth, then Johanna Katanacho, the school’s academic dean, gave an invited presentation on the question of how one should understand the biblical promise of the land, and whether modern Israelis can claim to be heirs of the promises to Abraham.
From the college we paid a short visit to Shepherd’s Field, the traditional place where the good news of Jesus’ birth was announced to “shepherds abiding in the fields.” We could not help but notice that the “fields” are now largely covered with condominiums, most of them part of an Israeli settlement built on Palestinian land. The Israelis consider the settlement to be a suburb of Jerusalem rather than a settlement, but it is built on land seized from the Palestinians and annexed to Jerusalem.
Our final stop was at the Church of the Nativity, home to the spot traditionally associated with Jesus’ birth. Somewhere beneath the ornate drapes and marble, silver and gold of the church there are the remains of what used to be a cave that could have been used as a stable. That part of the large church complex is controlled by the Greek Orthodox church. A smaller area belongs to the Armenian Orthodox church, and a large sanctuary connected to that is a Roman Catholic church called St. Catherine’s.
A most interesting aspect of the church is that the entrance has been downsized three times, leaving such a low opening that pilgrims must bow, bend, or crawl in order to enter the sanctuary.
A shopping stop at the Three Arches gift shop brought yet another memorable day to a close with a nice mix of education, inspiration, and introspection designed to encourage spiritual formation.
Tomorrow we dig, then drive south to Qumran, Masada, and the Dead Sea.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.