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Trip to the Holy Land: In search of a manger ...

Members of the Oklahoma Religions United Israel tour group prepare to enter the Grotto of the Nativity in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. [Photo by Evan Taylor]
Members of the Oklahoma Religions United Israel tour group prepare to enter the Grotto of the Nativity in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. [Photo by Evan Taylor]
Editor's note: Religion Editor Carla Hinton traveled to the Holy Land in January as part of an interfaith group from Oklahoma. Here, she writes about the group's experiences as they explored Israel together, visiting sacred sites important to the Abrahamic faiths and listening to the personal accounts of people whose lives have been affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The thought of visiting Bethlehem was surreal.

Having grown up hearing the story of Jesus’ birth from my relatives and church leaders during Sunday school, worship services, Christmas pageants, etc. I couldn’t wait to see the Church of the Nativity, which is said to be the actual site of the manger where He was born.

By the time we arrived at Manger Square in Bethlehem, our Oklahoma Religions United interfaith tour group had already visited the Old City of Jerusalem which included the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Bethlehem, we learned, is in the Palestinian Territories and is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches share custody of the Church of the Nativity and this was apparent by the different shrines and chapels that each group has placed there.

The original church was built by the Christian Roman Emperor Constantine as he and his mother Helena wanted a house of worship built around the cave venerated as Jesus’ birthplace. That church was destroyed by the Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian, who then built the church that our interfaith group visited.

We saw so much during the trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, but the Church of the Nativity stands out for many reasons.

The Rev. Steve Graham with Oklahoma Cooperating Baptists lights a candle in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]
The Rev. Steve Graham with Oklahoma Cooperating Baptists lights a candle in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]

We were intrigued when we entered the church by what they call the “Door of Humility,” a very small entry way into the church. At first, I thought our guide was joking. He wasn’t – I just hadn’t done my homework. In fact, this door is one of the more notable aspects of the famous church. Our guide Adam Nerk told us that the door was crafted so tiny to prevent theft of the animals people left in the courtyard area when they went in to pray. Sacreddestinations.com said the door was made so small to prevent carts driven in by looters and to ensure that all visitors would have to dismount from their animals in order to enter.    

This photo features a shrine in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]
This photo features a shrine in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]

Once inside, we were surprised to learn that the church is under renovation, just like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City. This didn’t deter tourists like us from getting a good look around.

It was good to see that the church is being cared for.

We saw portions of the ancient mosaic tile floor in the church’s nave. And we waited briefly in line to descend into the Grotto of the Nativity where we saw a silver star that marked the place of Jesus’ birth. Several of us placed our hands on the smooth stone inside the star that is said to be a part of the actual cave where Jesus was born.

The churches that share custody of this house of worship – one of the oldest surviving Christian churches – have each placed shrines in different parts of the Church of the Nativity.

We sat for a while in a fairly new part of the church, the Church of St. Catherine, that is under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church. It was here, that the Rev. William Tabbernee, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, told us about his previous visit to the Church of the Nativity. The Rev. Steve Graham with the Oklahoma Cooperative Baptist Fellowship lit a candle for one of his relatives before we went on to the next site.      

This photo shows what is thought to be the birthplace of Jesus in the Grotto of the Nativity in the Church of the Nativity in Bethelehem. [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]
This photo shows what is thought to be the birthplace of Jesus in the Grotto of the Nativity in the Church of the Nativity in Bethelehem. [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]

As we waited for everyone to gather so we could leave, I saw a beautiful scene of Jesus’ birth on display in a courtyard of the church. The scene featured life size characters of Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus, along with animals. I couldn’t help taking a picture. This scene didn’t look like a cave to me and it was more in keeping with how I’d always envisioned the scene of Jesus’ birth.

One thing that I remember most about this particular site was that I took off my "objective" hat. I am a Christian but when I cover events for my religion beat, particularly for interfaith events, I'm used to maintaining objectivity on whatever topic or issue is the focus.

During our group's visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre just three days before we went to Bethlehem, we saw the Stone of Unction, also called the Stone of the Anointing. It is a stone slab that is said to be where Jesus' body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea. According to many accounts, the limestone slab was placed in the church sometime between 1808 and 1810.

We saw many pilgrims bending down to place their hands on the stone and a lot of them knelt there for brief prayer. Another Christian in our group, the Rev. Evan Taylor of Tulsa, placed his hand on the stone. I wanted to do it as well but I hesitated. Then, I thought "Why am I hesitating? I'm a Christian pilgrim here like all these other pilgrims. So I knelt down, placed my hand on the stone and said a prayer. When I stood up, I felt good but didn't stop to think much about it.

At the Church of the Nativity, as we searched for the manger, it came to me: I didn't feel the hesitation that I experience a few days earlier. Yes, I was a reporter covering an interfaith group's trip to the Holy Land, but I was also a Christian. I had finally given myself permission to be just like any other Christian pilgrim there, to experience the holy sites sacred by the faith.

Manger Square in Bethlehem [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]
Manger Square in Bethlehem [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]

My hesitation was self-imposed. In fact, the interfaith group members all seemed to go out of their way to make sure that each of their fellow travelers experienced the holy sites important to their faith traditions in the best way possible.

This was the Holy Land, after all. 

Carla Hinton

Religion Editor

Read about the Oklahoma Religions United group's visit to Masada National Park, the Dead Sea and Jericho in the Life section of the Saturday, Feb. 18, edition of The Oklahoman. In the Feb. 25 Life section, look for a story about the Oklahoma group's visits to the Separation Wall in Bethlehem and a Palestinian refugee camp. 

Related Photos
Members of the Oklahoma Religions United Israel tour group prepare to enter the Grotto of the Nativity in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. [Photo by Evan Taylor]

Members of the Oklahoma Religions United Israel tour group prepare to enter the Grotto of the Nativity in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. [Photo by Evan Taylor]

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