At the Shepherds' Fields we gathered in a cave and remembered the story of the shepherds and their encounter with the angels. In the small church we found beautiful paintings representing the story of the shepherds and Ibrahim read us the New Testament account. We sang Angels We Have Heard on High -- with the benefit of amazing acoustics. It was a glorious way to celebrate hearing this story in the place where it happened.
We spent some time at the Christian gift shop in Bethlehem, visiting the wood-carving workshop below, first. This cooperative provides a source of income for struggling Christian families in the Palestinian area. Lots of lovely carvings and beautiful jewellery, all locally sourced.
A few of us stayed on the bus while the rest went to a restaurant for lunch, then we moved on to the Church of the Nativity. The bus parking is quite a distance downhill from the church and it was quite crowded.
We made our way to the church and joined the line-up to visit the cave where Jesus was born. The church still has a lot of scaffolding, but the restoration work has progressed a great deal in the four years since we were last here. There are wonderful mosaics high on the walls that are breath-taking in their beauty. The line wasn't too long, but it was prayer time, so we had to wait just over an hour before climbing down the 14 steps into the cave. Because so many were waiting, we had to move as quickly as possible, so had only moments to see the star marking the birthplace and the area where the manger stood. Then we took a very quick look at the Church of St. Catherine before struggling downhill to the bus. Of course, we had to pass another checkpoint, but we were waved through, so no delay.
Ein Karem, the home of John the Baptist, was our last stop of the day. When we got there, about 15 minutes before the posted closing time, there was a crowd at the locked door. After a few phone calls and a walk through another path, we were finally allowed in. Just as we got to the steps down to the important area of the church, another guide came through, shoving us out of the way and his group followed to the bottom of the steps, blocking us. I never got down there, though most of our group persisted until they had seen what was down there. Wasn't such a spiritual experience for me.
Then back to the hotel and a bit of rest and refresh before dinner.