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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Christmas in June and the story of Omar

The oldest church in the Holy Land. Floor mosaics inside
date from 339 AD!!
By now you know that I am in the Holy Land, living right next to Bethlehem and Beit Jale and basically each day I get a chance to hear lectures about the land, the people, the politics, the Scriptures and then go out and visit.   What amazes me is how much more I learn each and every time I come to the Holy Land.  Let's take Bethlehem for instance.  Pretty much got the story of Bethlehem down pact.  Old Testament, David born here and Ruth meet Boaz here.  New Testament, Jesus born here (shepherds, angels, magi, Inn, census) got it.  But of course there is always more to learn.
Original floor from 339 AD

Let me tell you about Omar.  We Christians don't know anything about him.  He was the second Muslim Caliph.  Having conquered the Holy Land he traveled to Bethlehem in 637 AD to issue a law that would guarantee the safety of Christians and clergy.  He was asked if he would like to pray in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, he declined.  However he did want to pray at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.   So here's where the story gets interesting.  In order to accommodate Omar, the leaders knew that he would need to pray toward Mecca, and that there couldn't be any images in the area where he prayed.  So they enlarged a side door in the direction of Mecca and to this day there are no icons or images in that part of the church.  This was over 1400 years ago!  Still it remains empty for Omar!
Here you see the door and the white plain wall.

In order to make sure there would be no problems, Omar decreed that Muslims could visit the Church of the Nativity, but should not pray there.  Instead he built a mosque across from manger square for the Muslims to use for prayer.   The mosque of Omar.   I guess what I find amazing is that in a land that is often known for its extremes, here is a decision that involved compromise, mercy, and mutual respect for each other; while fully realizing that there are differences between us. 

How I wish we had some folks with the wisdom of Omar today!!

Where St. Jerome translated the Bible
into Latin
Of course the Church of the Nativity is being renovated so it is a mess...but the renovation is much needed.  It is also the place where St. Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.  He did this while living at the Church of the Nativity.  He died in 386 AD.  You can still see where he lived and worked. 

Finally, you'll have to wait until December, but I've learned a few new things about the birth of Jesus as well.   It doesn't change the wonder of the story, but it seriously challenges one of our most deeply held 'folk tales' about that night.   Ask me when I get back and I'll tell you....or just come to church on Christmas eve!

At the end of the day, visiting the shepherds fields--where we  had communion and the caretaker of the beautiful church let us ring the bells as we sang "Angels we have heard on high."  And being in the oldest church in the Holy Land, singing "Silent Night" right near where he was born whose name is above all, that is quite the Christmas present.
Cave at Shepherds field set for Holy Communion.

Shepherds field

Church at Shepherds Field.

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