Arriving in Bethlehem, I fired off the last update, mainly because I was feeling guilty about the long silence. After convincing the small coterie of taxi drivers which gathered around that I really did not need a taxi today, I headed uphill towards the Church of the Nativity. I stopped at the tourist office at Manger Square and picked up a map, and realised how close the Bethlehem Youth Hostel is to the church. I checked in and freshened up a bit and was inside the church by 2:00. It was both disappointing and encouraging to see the major renovations underway -- disappointing because there is scaffolding everywhere inside and the ceiling is completely covered, but encouraging because it means there's the money and the will to do major maintenance. The church was dedicated in 326 AD, and has been in continuous use as a place of Christian worship ever since. When the Persians arrived in the Holy Land in the early 7th century, they spared this church. Apparently, when they entered and saw the iconography of the three Magi, they recognised their own traditional garb. It may not be true, but it's a good story!
While I was admiring the iconostasis from a distance, I spotted a priest. I got his blessing in Arabic and then asked about the time for Vespers. I had just enough time to go have lunch at a nearby restaurant -- I had a smallish breakfast this morning and nothing since, not even coffee! When I returned back at church, I was just in time to see the bishop arrive and be greeted by the clergy. (I'm not sure who he is, but since he was only wearing one pectoral icon instead of three I'm pretty sure it wasn't the patriarch.) After the censing of the church during "O Lord I have cried," one of the deacons approached me and another man in the congregation, asked if we were Orthodox, and told us to follow him. He led us into the altar, and gave us each a large processional cross to carry in the entrance. For my non-Orthodox readers, this may seem like a cool thing but not really a big deal. My Orthodox readers, however, know what a privilege was extended to me today. After "Phos Hilaron," the deacon thanked us(!!!) and we returned to our places in the nave. Needless to say, I don't have the photos to prove all this -- it really wasn't an appropriate time for a selfie.
The pilgrimage may be over, but the experience keeps getting better and better!
The line to enter the Grotto of the Nativity was way too long for me, but I plan to be at church nice and early tomorrow morning, long before the tour buses from Jerusalem arrive. After Liturgy, I plan to take a taxi to Mar Sabbas Monastery, established in 439 AD. From there it should be a three or four hour walk to the Dead Sea, where I plan to camp for the night. I'll be carrying at least three litres of water with me, and I'll be walking with the sun behind me. (Or maybe I'll ask if I can spend the night at the monastery, and head east just before sunrise when it's still cool so that I arrive at the beach in time for a nice refreshing dip.)
Clearly, the last few days of my journey will be busy ones. I really don't know how much of this is even possible, but at this point it's all icing on the cake. As long as I'm at the airport in Amman by 8:00 Friday, I'll be happy.