Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem

Sunday, our free day, was great. I spent most of the day painting a homeless shelter for teens who need a refuge from troubled homes or the streets. A group of about twenty of us went, including Katie and Will and Abby and Annie and Jackie, to name a few. We painted the bedrooms upstairs while singing along to Abby's iPod and painting one another almost as much as the walls. The directors of the shelter fed us lunch part way through, which we enjoyed down in a colorful reading/lounch area (where we all admired the Hebrew books, including Harry Potter 3--Katie and I read enough to find words like "Lupin" and "Lumos"). The inhabitants of the shelter came home from school shortly thereafter, before we were quite finished. While the cleaning up took place, a few of us went downstairs and talked with some of the teenagers. I had pictured them younger. Although I am older than the majority of them, they seemed like adults to me. They have seen much more hardship and lived far more on their own than I ever have. It made me so grateful that I have never had to experience living without the presence of a loving family and never will.

So Sunday was great--but Monday was better by a long shot. Why? Because went to Bethlehem.

We loaded the buses at 8am and set off. We had our devotional, for which we sang "Jesus Once of Humble Birth" by Annie's request. After that, it was all Christmas hymns. We started at "Joy to the World" and sang all the way through in numerical order to "Away in a Manger" by the time we reached our first stop--the Herodion.

 The Herodion was yet another of Herod's palaces. In his earlier years of leadership he was attacked by a coalition of Jews and Persians, which made him paranoid thereafter of further revolts. Throughout his life he built seven fortresses in and around Jerusalem, including the Herodion--right on the very mountain where he made his last stand against the Jews years earlier. He hand picked the spot for his seplechure as well, which was discovered only a couple years ago. The builders piled earth from the neighboring hills into a volcano-like structure on which it was built. We didn't stay there long, but it was very cool. We even got to descend the hill via underground tunnels and caverns used by the zealots and Bar Kokbah rebels during their use of the fortress later on. I got to talk to a friend I've got to know quite well the last few weeks--Sophie Hoffman. She is a wonderful person and I have been so grateful to her for talking to me and being my friend on field trips and the buss. We've had fun.

The rest of the day we spent in Bethlehem. We went to a Greek Orthodox church for the shepherds of the nativity that smelled of sweet incense and looked like a rainbow, the walls were so covered with beautiful paintings. We also visited a small Catholic church for the same shepherds a couple miles away--round and little and sunlit. After that we had lunch at an awesome restaurant--The Tent. The main course of meat and french fries and tomatoes was good, but the best part was the appetizer--hot, whole-wheat pita bread with a dozen different toppings, from variations on hummus to tomatoes and cucumbers with cilantro to a sweet, coleslaw-like mix that I ended up really liking. I also got to taste some of the first Sprite I've had since we came here, which was actually really wonderful. Dessert was baklava. Official declaration: I love baklava.

We visited the church of the Nativity after that. It is beautiful and very old, and it was a great experience to join with the crowds of pilgrims thronging through to see the place where Empress Helena declared the birth had taken place. The best part of the church was that the inside was strung with bright red and green and gold balls and lights, possibly getting ready for the next month. As such, the church of the Nativity will now and forever be "the Christmas Tree Church" in my mind. We waited in long lines to see the alleged spot of the birth and a replica of the manger. After that we sang more Christmas hymns in a small room beneath the new wing of the church where St. Jerome is said to have translated the Bible from Hebrew/Aramaic into Latin. Brother Schade gave us a brief devotional, talking about Nephi seeing the love of God in vision--or in other words, the birth of Jesus Christ. We didn't know until we went topside and the other class came in to sing that there was a metal grill above our heads through which everyone in the outer courtyard could hear us. Whoops--hope they liked it. :) I got a beautiful white Bethlehem baby blanket from a local member of the church (Bethlehem group) outside the church. Cliche? Maybe. But I like it.

Our final stop was by far the humblest, but also by far the best. We drove to a rocky field on a hillside just outside Bethlehem. We sat in our separate classes among the rocks and scrub and sang a couple hymns together. Brother Schade gave us some brief thoughts and then let us to ourselves for some quiet time to read the Christmas story and do our own thinking and pondering. I have the account from Luke memorized, so I recited it to myself while looking out at the lights of Bethlehem, gleaming from the top of the hill opposite us. The sun was setting, turning the sky dusky pink and purple, the bells of a Christian church pealed in the distance, and from a local minaret we could hear the call to prayer. The spirit was so strong there. I can't adequately describe the feeling, but if you've ever felt the peace and warmth that comes from being in the temple or having Heavenly Father give you assurance or peace, you know what I felt like.

We had a brief testimony meeting there on the hill. I went first--I wasn't planning to, but somebody had to relieve Brother Schade from standing there waiting for somebody to take the little clip on mic for the headsets. I didn't say much--mostly just my thoughts from our quiet time. I said that I don't always understand everything about the Atonement. I am sometimes skeptical or over analytic and want to know specifically why or how that kind of thing is possible. My brain wants to be able to put it all together and have everything add up in a logical sense. The things of God aren't always like that, though. I said that although my brain doesn't logically understand everything, I know I how I felt then. I was being told that what happened here was important and real and part of God's plan. I think there are many things my heart knows that my brain hasn't caught up to yet. I feel I can say much the same thing Nephi did as he saw Jesus Christ in vision centuries prior: "I know that [God] loveth His children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things." I don't know the meaning of all things, but if there is one thing I know more than anything else it is that Heavenly Father loves His children--and He showed us no greater love than when He sent His son to be born as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem. Even though I don't understand everything, I want to be able to join my voice with the angels and shepherds, praising and glorifying God and Jesus Christ--because I know that no one has ever shown me greater love.

When all had born testimony that wanted to, we sang a couple more hymns and got a quick class picture while a little light remained to us. As we wandered through the fields back to the buses, the sky was dark and turning starry, while the lights of Bethlehem shone softly from the hills. I will always treasure that image in my heart and will think of it every time I sing the words of one of my favorite hymns:

Oh, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light--
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given
as God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, yet in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him still the dear Lord enters in.

Merry Christmas, everyone. More soon!


  1. You expressed that experience so beautifully. I'm so jealous of your time there!!! It sounds like you're ready for the Christmas season a bit more this year! Thanks for sharing.

    Aunt Linda

  2. Hi Rachel-

    Your experience painting the Homeless Shelter was interesting. Good service project. I loved you description of your day in Bethlehem. Christmas will always have added meaning in your life. I'm glad you are coming home at Christmas time!
    love, mom