Shalom! Today we said goodbye to Northern Israel and headed South to Bethlehem, about a three-hour drive. Along the way, the terrain began to change. The green countryside became sandy brown and the mountains sharpened. They look as though God built giant sandcastles here for fun.

Our first stop was at a Christian organization that sells hand- and machine-crafted olive-wood figurines and gifts. Olives trees are considered “trees of life” and can thrive for centuries and are only harvested for their richly colored wood after they stop producing fruit. We watched artisans carve and we learned a little about the struggles Christians living in the Holy Land today face. Believe it or not, Christians make up just one percent of the population; Jews and Muslims are the religious majorities.

Our next stop was the Church of the Nativity: the oldest church in existence, having been built by Helena (Constantine the Great’s mother) in 324 A.D. on the very spot where Jesus was born. It has survived invasions, regime changes, fires, and earthquakes. It has changed over the centuries as a result of all of these trials, yet the church is still standing and you can touch the very spot where Jesus was laid in a manger, more than 2,000 years ago.

Not five minutes from the Church of the Nativity is Shepherd’s Field: the spot where shepherds caves have been discovered and is where angels announced the arrival of Jesus’ birth. Believe it or not, shepherds still roam the Jerusalem countryside with their sheep and we could all just see the star in the sky over the hill in the distance.

Pastor Kip shared a preaching moment outside the Catholic chapel that was built on the site. Even though it’s nearly Easter, it was only appropriate to remember the miracle of Christmas and the gift that Jesus brings to all: unconditional love. Afterwards, we sang our favorite carols. On “Silent Night,” two nearby Holy Land pilgrims joined us, singing in Italian.

Our final stop for the day was at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial where we honored and remembered the millions of lives lost during WWII. It was an unforgettable exhibit. Photography was not permitted out of respect for the dead.

Tomorrow, we visit Masada, a mountaintop fortress we reach by cablecar; we’ll see the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran and take a dip in the Dead Sea!

God Be With You,

Day 4: Bethlehem