Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Christmas Eve 2007 in Palestine

     Since we have been on break I have gone to Israel and Palestine, the Pyramids, the movies, etc. I even take myself out to dinner. I am so glad I went to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve because it is almost as though Christmas didn't come here.
     There is a very small, around 10%, Christian population in Egypt, and they are called Coptic. Their Christmas is on January 7. I don't know what they do exactly. They worship in an ancient language unique to their religion, and I would not feel at home with them much.
     Since I do not have TV, I do not get the American commercials and programs that we are used to seeing that tell us how many days we have left to shop. There are two Christmas trees in my building that people have placed outside their doors--still up, but I don't know the people. They are most likely Coptic, since I am the only non-Egyptian. Maybe I should knock just to say Merry Christmas to someone.
     I do know that Christmas is in the heart, blah, blah, and I could have "made" it Christmas in my own apartment, or with the few people that I have made friends, but I didn't stay here anyway. And, it is hard to top being in the Dead Sea on Winter Solstice and in Bethlehem on Christmas eve.
     We had originally been told that we would attend a midnight Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity. That is the shrine that is built over the probably fake spot where Jesus was supposedly born. But still, I was excited about that experience. However, the tour guide broke the news to us that ten thousand people apply early in the year for tickets, because the church can only hold about one thousand, we did not get tickets.
     Instead we would be going to outdoor mass in Shepherd's Field, where supposedly, and more likely, shepherds really did watch their flocks one silent night. When we get there, the field is packed with people and nothing seems to be organized into a service or a celebration at all, and people are mostly just milling about.
     The guide tells us that there are caves all around the field where individual services are being held, but those turn out to be all taken. We can just hang together and one of the teachers will read the story from the Bible and we can sing some carols. (I noticed that he was flipping thru pages trying to find the story, so I had no real interest in him as a spiritual leader! Even I know where its at!)
     I was hanging out with a Catholic woman from Paraguay, and she was very disappointed not to be having mass, so she ran ahead to one of the caves and found a priest about to start a service. She told him our situation, and he said his cave was filled with a scheduled tour group, but we could stand in the rear. She came back and got myself and two other Catholic teachers. We left our group and went to the cave. Sure enough there was room for us in the back. (We enjoyed the irony of this story as it reminded us of some other folks who could not find room on Christmas eve.)
     The caves are real, but have man-made additions to make them more comfortable, like lights and seats--however you do really get the sensation of being in a cave on a shepherds' hillside. We started with Christmas carols, the Apostles' Creed, the Lords Prayer, and then the priest gave the most wonderful sermon. He said that god sent his son so that love would be tangible, touchable, (in the way that we were here as tourists trying to get spiritual benefits from walking where Jesus walked and touching places that he had touched) more real to people, in other words. And now it is our calling to continue to make that love tangible to others in the world as we touch their lives. He made a little joke here, he said, "As you tourists touch the place where Jesus was born, or one of the six places where he was buried!" This is funny because there is more than one shrine for just about every place he could have possibly been! Every tour guide tells you why the place they are showing you is the most likely "real" place.
     Anyway, I am so glad for Carmen who had the idea and the courage to run ahead and find us a place in the cave. It is also very exciting to look around in the cave and realize I am worshiping with Japanese people, Irish people, British people, and North and South Americans. I truly feel that I can worship with people of any religion, anytime, as long as we are all sincerely in awe of our circumstances in this universe.
     The other two places that I most enjoyed on a spiritual level were the Sea of Galilee and the Mount of Olives. Both because they are outdoors and relatively unspoiled. You can look at the shore of the sea and at the skyline of old Jerusalem and at least realize that this is the sea and the sky that Jesus and his followers saw.
     On the sea we took a boat ride in a replica of a fishing boat and the captain showed us how the nets of the day were used. He cast the net over the left side and it came up empty, then he cast it over the right side and it came up empty, He said "Hey, you all weren't praying the second time!"
     Then we went to a museum and saw a real 2,000 year old fishing boat that has been recovered from the Galilee sea bottom. It has been dubbed "The Jesus Boat" because of its time in history. It took over a year to carefully pull the boat out without doing it any further damage-quite fascinating. Besides those places, I enjoyed everything else for its historical value.
     The huge churches that are built over top of everything are interesting in themselves because they are hundreds of years old. Some things have been recovered that were built by King Herod. He was determined to show his wealth and power through his palaces and fortresses, so pieces of them can be seen today. In one palace there remains a few pieces of brilliant paint that he had on the walls of his heated bath and sauna.
      We viewed many archaeological digs of this time in history, mosaic tiles were popular and sometimes complete pictures remain in place. One of his palaces has an important history that I did not know about. On a mountain top, the whole mountain top, he built a home and a fortress on the coast of the Dead Sea. He had 12 storerooms of food and wine, a staff of hundreds of people, and water cistern that held a years supply of water for them all. It is called Masada. But the most important part of this history did not come until years later.
    A group of Jewish zealot-types became disgusted with the liberal synagogues in Jerusalem and fled to the old palace and turned it into a place of refuge and worship for themselves. They lived there for several years quite well. But the Romans were determined to get it back and attacked them. After several days of resistance, they realized that the Romans were going to win. So the Jewish men each agreed to kill their own wives and children, then to kill one another, then cast lots to see who would be last and would fall upon his own sword. They left writing that said, we would rather contradict our own scriptural teaching and die as free men than to be taken in slavery by the Romans. And they carried out their plan, so that when the Roman soldiers overtook the mountain top all they found were the bodies.
     Hollywood made a movie of this called "Masada" I plan to see it when I can. The only place we went to in Jordan was a small island that has a memorial for a tragic event that happened there and celebrates the peace between Israel and Jordan. I was absolutely delighted in the Dead Sea. I stayed in it until our time was up. It was the first thing on our itinerary, after an 8 hour bus ride, so I wore my bathing suit under my clothes. I did not want to waste a minute. We fortunately had very pretty weather for this too. (In Jerusalem and further north it was so cold I bought hat scarf and gloves! quite a contrast)
     The sea and the mud are delightful. It tastes nasty, worse than just salt water, so I didn't swallow it - just tasted! You float so easy that it is hard to put your feet back down when you want to get out. It makes your skin feel good so I filled up an empty bottle and brought some home. I also bought some mud at the store. I will go back here on my own and will go to the Jordan side. Getting to Israel and back is a big visa/passport hassle I will explain some other time. Chalk it up to (very)bad political relations.
     Some of the meals were provided as part of the trip. Every morning we had breakfast buffet at the hotel with typical middle eastern food just like we eat here. The one difference was the fish, chilled, choice of salted or pickled. I like it. However, I dream of Bob Evans. A typical breakfast has several kinds of cheese, bread, olives, fish, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers. The only things warm are scrambled eggs, and brown beans, creamed into a paste. That is basically the same thing I eat at home every morning, except for the fish.
     The best meal I had was on the Sea of Galilee, a restaurant served "St. Peter's Fish" It was a wonderful whole fish, fresh from the sea. One of the teachers asked why the name "St Peters?" So someone told her the story of five loaves and fishes. And I added, It also works for tourists, helps sell fish dinners. She picked up the bread basket and said "Oh I get it, and this is the actual basket that the loaves were in!" So then when dessert came, someone said "and this is Adam and Eve's Apple Pie! It does get comical how commercialized the place can be.
     The walk that we took through Jerusalem that was supposedly, and probably not, the way that Jesus walked with the cross was completely lost on me because all the way you have to go through a tight crowded market with people calling to you "Special deal for you my friend" (I felt like saying, "Not really, I can buy that same special crap in Cairo for half your special price, my friend!) However, between two of the "stations of the cross" we stopped and had the best pizza I have ever had in my life.