Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve morning began with tours around Bethlehem with our tour guide Nidal. Nidal proved to be an incredible guide and friend. As he is friend of a PC(USA) missionary in Jerusalem, Doug Dicks, he was been working with our missionary groups for a couple years now. After the tours we ended up spending a lot of time in his brother’s shop where we drank wine, bought many olive wood gifts, and asked questions about Israel-Palestine. It’s really horrible what has happened to Palestinians in the past couple years. Because they do not have freedom of movement (along with other lacking of freedom issues) many people are going broke because they cannot get to their jobs due to the wall. For instance, I have a picture showing two walls—one in the foreground and one in the background, with olive tree fields in-between. These fields have been used by Palestinian families for hundreds of years but now they cannot even get into their land. As another example, Niveen’s sister has been stopped so many times at the check point without being let through that she’s has to attend an extra year and a half of school to finish her degree—not to mention the cost of doing that! Many Palestinians are now dependant on tourism, but unfortunately tourism is down 85% from what it was 5 years ago. People, please visit Bethlehem!

Anyhow, back to the tour. We started in Manger Square and walked through the Church of the Nativity, the oldest standing and functioning church in the Middle East (and therefore, according to Teri, probably in the world). The Church of the Nativity is built on top of the place where Jesus was born, i.e. it’s built on a cave that was once used as a stable. As Teri explained in, during Roman times (and before) caves were often used as homes and as shelters for animals, with just a little thatched shed built out over the entrance, or sometimes just a cloth or animal skin covering the door. Troughs were carved out of the rock to hold food and water and keep it relatively fresh for animals, which works especially well for hot summers and cold winters as the stone keeps a relatively stable temperature. The grotto of the nativity, the part of the cave where tradition says Jesus was born (and the part that, archeologically speaking, is most likely because there is a carved trough/manger there) is under the altar of the Greek Orthodox section of the Church.

You enter the church through the “door of humility” (a post-Crusader addition that has to do both with not being big enough for horses and forcing people to bow while entering) and find yourself in the nave of a Basilica that hasn’t changed much since Justinian. There have been re-buildings, renovations, etc, but the original floor is visible through some trapdoors, the columns are there, and you can even see some original frescoes on the columns. There are large sections of 800 year old mosaic on the walls. The windows are near the ceiling and light shines in in geometric shapes. You can still see bullet holes in the windows and damage to the mosaics from “the siege” in 2003 when people barricaded themselves inside the church for weeks. [See for details.] This has been a holy site for at least 1900 years…between 100 and 135 the emperor made it a pagan temple in an attempt to discourage Christianity. Queen Helena visited and ordered a church built there in the 4th century. The church was saved from destruction during the Persian invasions because of a mosaic depicting the three wise men (in Persian dress). It was reconstructed and preserved by the Crusaders and used as the place for crowning the crusader kings of Jerusalem. It is still a functioning church used by multiple denominations, and is a pilgrimage site for thousands of people each year. There are three masses held every morning in the grotto—Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic.

The Roman Catholic Church—Saint Catherine—is connected to/a part of the Church of the Nativity but build in the past couple hundred years. Under this church is the rest of the cave, including the tombs of the Innocents, the place where the angel is said to have visited Joseph and told him to flee to Egypt, and some unidentified tombs. We came to the cave were Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, and also where he is buried. We were literally in the spot of the first bible translations! Awesome.

After our visit to the Church, we moved a block away where we watched the annual Christmas Eve parade of Scouts. This lasted at least an hour, and I was so impressed with the number of Boy and Girl Scouts in Palestine. They come from all over the country and march through the streets of Bethlehem from two opposite directions, meet up a block away from Manger Square, and march into the Square. They came complete with bands of drum and bugle corps, bagpipes, your average marching bands and flag bearers. Sweet. Once reaching the Square they wait for a couple hours for The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem who comes to Bethlehem and parades through the streets, the square, and into the Church. During this waiting time we took a bus to Shepherd’s field, where the angel proclaimed the Good News to the shepherds. All that’s left are archeological excavations, a couple cave chapels and two churches.

After returning to Bethlehem for lunch it was time to watch the Patriarch come into town. After waiting a long time, two lines of priests and altar boys wearing white started marching from Manger Square into the Church of the Nativity, followed by the Patriarch. Even though we were at the front line of the police barrier, it was hard to see much because, as Teri said, “it felt like the entire Palestinian police force formed a human chain that went between us and the line of priests/altar boys, and the altar boys were between the police and the patriarch, who was surrounded by two other bishops. In other words, we didn’t see much besides the hot pink hat. :-)”

Through the day we, or I should say Stephen, was greeted by at least three newscasters from around the world, asking us about our time in Bethlehem, how it feels to be here on Christmas Eve, and whether or not we feel safe. I had one woman from Finland approach me, and I became quickly irritated. It was clear she was asking leading questions, trying to get me to say that we feel unsafe in Palestine and yada yada yada. When I said, “No, actually, I feel more unsafe in my home country of America than I do here right now,” she frowned at me and walked away. Ugh. Reporters, can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

We had some free time to explore, so we stopped by the Milk Grotto, where, according to tradition, the holy family came to this cave “on their way to Egypt.” The story goes that Mary nursed Jesus here and a drop of her milk felt to the floor causing the stone to be chalky white. Now, people having trouble getting pregnant come from around the world to break off a piece of the stone cave, grind it up, put it into milk or water, and drink it. In one section of the grotto you find letters and pictures of people who became pregnant after doing just that, and they give many thanks to the Milk Grotto for their good fortune.

That evening we attended the 5:00pm Christmas Eve Service at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church. It was absolutely packed, and all but a few of us stood for the entire service in the back of the church with Niveen, who happens to be the youth director at the church. The service was conducted in German, Arabic, and English. We sang such songs as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” in the three languages simultaneously. The sermon, by Pastor Martin Reyer of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Jerusalem, was in German, but we had an English translation to follow. He spoke of peace and justice, love and hope, but also of the need to recognize the reality gap between the Christmas hopes and Christmas reality in the holy land today. He encouraged people to see that in Jesus’ short life He was sufficient to set fire into the world and changed the world. It was not fire of war, not the sword of the prophet but the fire of love. He said, “There is deep gravity in this joy of Christmas. There is no other future for the world except this: This unarmed love. Who does not wish to follow this kind of Peace, who is not prepared to go the same way as He, will have to continue to secure his security, he will have to defend himself, he will have to account for, set borders, rely on himself, security and always again security. For how long? He will have to continue on the path of violence—the only thing that remains, however, is love. That is what it says in the First letter for the Corinthians.” The service ended by singing Silent Night as we lit the sanctuary by igniting each other’s candles—all having started from one light source. It was a beautiful service, and so touching to be sharing it with so many believers from around the world who trust in the love that we can share and pass on in the name of Jesus.

After the service we attended social hour with the congregation where I introduced myself to Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb and participated in the traditional drinking of wine and eating of chocolate. We ran into some friends there as well—Aubrey, Luke, and Mark, who live in Cairo. Then, it was back out into the rain (so refreshing!) before the next service—a midnight service at the Church of the Nativity.

Hours before the midnight service, the area outside our hotel was swarming with Palestinian policemen and snipers on the top of every building, including a man on the building across from my window. Jen and I waved to him, and after stalling for a second he waved back. Hmm… Anyhow, Manger Square was loaded with people and a huge line to get into the cathedral was forming. As most people couldn’t get into the church, there were thousands of people standing and worshiping in Manger Square all night. We were lucky, however, to be guests at the Casanova Hotel, because there was a special private back door that we were able to go through to get into the mass. It took awhile, however, for us to get through even the secret door, due to the extensive security. It didn’t take long to find out why—the new President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, arrived at mass about 1/3 of the way through the program.

The mass lasted about 3 hours, however I ended up leaving after about an hour. I had literally been on my feet since 8am other than ½ hour for lunch and ½ hour for dinner and I was tired. Also, I was ill with a cold so I really wasn’t up for standing much longer. The place was PACKED and it was hard to see or know what was going on. Being that I’m not Catholic and I don’t know Latin, I didn’t realize at the time that the first hour we were making our way through a bunch of psalms. I found out the next morning that the Patriarch gave a sermon in Arabic and French, followed with a ringing of the bell to alert everyone that the bread was being broken and elevated and the wine was being poured and elevated. When they did serve communion, only the bread was given, not the wine.

What I did experience of the mass was a great. Because I didn’t understand what was going on, I concentrated on other things. For instance, I recognized that many languages were being spoken throughout the mass. The collaboration of so many people from so many backgrounds worshiping here as a witness to each other because of something greater than all of us was beautiful. There I was, a young adult Lutheran missionary living in Egypt but from America worshiping in a Roman Catholic Church in Palestine standing next to an Orthodox priest from France on my left and a group of Europeans to my right. Looking around it was obvious that a great number of nations from around the world were being represented by clergymen, lay men and women, and your average saint and sinner. The air was thick with incense and heat, but also with a common love for Christ and a desire to serve Him with joy, peace, hope, and love. I started thinking about the fact that millions upon millions of people have stood in this very spot throughout the centuries since Christ was born, all of us connected as the community of believers---the body of Christ. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see or understand the mass; all that mattered was that the church being filled with people serving as lights in a dark world, and that perfect to me.


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