Elias was planning to leave on Thursday so we got a couple of day trips in today and Monday.

On Monday we went back to Bethlehem and the West Bank. My friend Loai met us at the monastery and accompanied us on a shuttle bus through the border wall the Israelis have built that separates Israeli territory from the West Bank. As a Palestinian he does not have permission to bring his car into Israel. Loai then drove us to Hebron to visit the tomb of the patriarchs Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah. The tomb is a huge edifice built by Herod the Great–which is now a mosque and a synagogue. We were unable to gain admittance because of the Muslim feast day, but amazing to see the structure from the outside. Because of traffic congestion we were running late, but managed to travel with Loai out into the Judean desert to visit some Bedouin shepherds. We drove first to their settlement, then got into our hosts old pickup and bounced out into the desert to visit their flocks. I was able to quiz them about the shepherds’ lives firsthand, and when I asked about cave-houses they took us over the hill to see the remains of one.

This is important for the understanding of the Nativity of Our Lord. All across the hillsides of the Bethlehem area are cave which have been inhabited for thousands of years. The occupants would often build houses to the front of the cave and use the cave as a stable for the animals while the family lived in the adjoining one roomed house. Hospitality is important in Middle Eastern culture, so in addition to the one room the family would live in there would usually also be a guest room. This is what St Luke refers to with the Greek word kataluma which we are used to hearing translated as “the inn”. In fact the room means “guest room.” So the proper understanding of the story is not the mythical version we love to hear about the grumpy innkeeper who doesn’t have any vacancies so sends the Holy Family to sleep in a drafty barn.

Instead St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin would have knocked on the door of one of Joseph’s family members whose guest room was occupied, but they offered a place in the cave/stable which would have been warm and snug and safe. This completed the picture also for when you visit Bethlehem and are told Jesus was born in a cave. Cave or stable? It was both.

After visiting the cave house we were invited into our host’s simple cement block house and offered some tea, bread with goat milk butter and a glass of camel’s milk. It was delicious. We then went to meet Loai’s wife and four kids where we were offered more hospitality–stuffed grape leaves, cookies and strong coffee. Loai’s parish is Our Lady of Fatima–we met the parish priest who showed us yet another network of caves that exist beneath his church on a hillside in Bethlehem. The archeologists believe the caves were occupied 4,000 years ago and up to the time of Christ and beyond. Elias then had a tour of the Church of the Nativity and St Catherine Church next door where you find the tombs of the Holy Innocents and the cave/cell of St Jerome.

This morning (Tuesday) we got an early start on a package tour to the fortress of Masada and the oasis of Ein Gedi followed by a chance to swim (or rather float) in the Dead Sea. Masada is a popular tourist location. You take a three minute cable car ride to the top and explore the ruins of Herod the Great’s palace and the site where about 1000 Jews held out against the Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD before finally committing mass suicide. Ein Gedi is a beautiful oasis in the middle of the harsh desert–a little valley (Wadi) with waterfalls, running streams and pools. If you’re lucky you can spot some ibex–the little deer-like mountain goats who were on the verge of extinction, but are now bouncing back.

Our day trip was booked through Tour Israel. It was reasonably priced, the guide was jovial, well informed and helpful. The bus picked us up from a Jerusalem hotel and deposited us back around 5:30 in time for us to trudge home through the Old City.

Just outside the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre I spotted a shop that sells censers with bells like they use in Eastern Rite churches. Tempted to get one for OLR to spice up the worship with a bit of Eastern color!