Back when I worked at the hotel, one of our regular guests was an Israeli businessman who would pull up a chair and chat with me in the evenings. When I told him that I was going to be visiting Israel, his eyes lit up. He started telling me all of his favorite places that he wanted me to visit. When I asked about the food, he took a deep breath, then exhaled. "You're a Christian, yes?" he asked, rhetorically. "Then you're want to go to all of the Jesus things, I know. The hill where the sheep boys went loony, the place where Jesus disappeared up to wherever. But after you do all that, go to here..." he wrote down the address of a restaurant, "and order this..." he wrote down a name of a dish. "It will change the way you think about food."He wasn't exaggerating about the food: it's incredible. But after visiting even just the few holy sights in our first day of touring, it has changed the way I will read the Bible from now on.
I expected the holy sights to bring my faith to life, but it has done something else, too. It has brought my faith down to earth. I had very definitive pictures of certain places, probably based on the curriculum and coloring books that that my Sunday School teacher used, and everything is different. The shepherds hill? It's a rocky little hill right next to Bethlehem. Seriously, you can walk from the hill to the manger in about twenty minutes. I know, because we did. I had never thought of it before, but the angles must have appeared in a vision to only the shepherds, because otherwise the entire city of Bethlehem would have seen them.
Every holy sight has a church built on top of it. We hired a tour guide to lead us through the church on top of the grotto/stable where Jesus was born. The church is divided into separate worship places for Assyrians, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and maybe a few others, most of whom were performing services. There was a service taking place in the stable, so we weren't allowed to enter. Our guide brought us to the door and said, "There was a hole here... I know it. Ah!" We each took turns peeking into the hole, and I decided that I preferred it that way. I saw just enough to see it, and not enough to completely alter the way I have always imagined it.
We were going to visit the Herodian, but decided to stop home for a quick nap, which turned into a four hour jet-lag recuperation. After we woke up, the ladies decided to go to the market, with Nikki leading the way through Bethlehem at night. (Nikki is a 21 year old missionary who lives in the Father's House by herself. She seems to know half the town of Bethlehem, and they all seem to love her.) We walked for over an hour in the streets and allies, stopping occasionally for fruit or dry goods or pastries. (Oh, the pastries. Oh, oh, the pastries.) Every door was open to something fascinating: men in barber chairs getting a shave, men in Islamic dress bowing in rows, shop owners smoking and arranging their merchandise. I tried to take it all in while cars honked and flew past us, sometimes barely missing my toes.
And that was basically my first real day in Bethlehem. We came home and ate pizza downstairs (who knew that pizza in Israel could rival pizza in Chicago?), played cards, drank tea.
Oh, the breast milk thing. I typed that title and forgot to incorporate it into this entry. Our tour guide at the stable church told us a lot of stories "from tradition," (as he said), which he did not buy into as "a practical man." Among them: before Mary and Joseph fled with baby Jesus, Mary accidentally squirted some breast milk on the wall, and all of the stones turned white. "This is from tradition," he reminded us. "But, like I said, I am a practical man. So, you know. There you go."