Trip to the Holy Land yields an epiphany

Published 10:21 am Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Column: Creative Connections, by Sara Aeikens

As I sit by our fireplace gazing at an unusual olive wood nativity carving, I ponder possibilities for sharing the essence of a group trip to the Holy Land.

It causes me to sift through an overwhelming quantity of activities, events and feelings. I decided to go because I knew that since the program was sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies I’d have both educational and spiritual experiences. I also realized the trip was ideal for someone like me who learns best by seeing and moving through a journey, rather than reading or just hearing about it.

Sara Aeikens

Sara Aeikens

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Our group, guided by a very knowledgeable minister, consisted of about two dozen mostly Midwesterners, including three other clergy who inspired us in our singing, praying, worship and discussions at various locations that were a reflection of Biblical times.

Sitting on stones or fallen column fragments brought the presence of several thousand years of history to the forefront. We walked through crumbled villages, tunnels, water ducts and caves and imagined what life, cultures and religions gave the people of different civilizations. The murals, paintings, statues and sanctuaries at the many churches we visited came alive.

On our third day in Bethlehem, the Armenian Christmas Day, Jan. 18, we visited the Nativity Church on Manger Square, which is known as the birthplace of Jesus. Various religions held services in their own chapels, and tourists like us were also able to participate.

Directly after those church services another unplanned highlight occurred. On this third visit to the Manger Square shopping area, an energetic middle-aged businessman, looking for tourist trade during the Christmas festival, approached several of our group for the third time to persuade us in English to visit his souvenir shop at the top of the hill one block away.

This time I surprised him by asking him to take us to his store, after two of us decided to explore the square. Speechless, he led us to his decorative one-room business chock-full of tourist items. He found stools, we both sat down and he immediately served us tea. Then from a fuzzy little plant, he plucked two sprigs of fresh sage to enhance our steaming drinks.

Next he introduced us to his 15-year-old son and told how as the eldest child, after school he relieved his dad from a 14-hour-long day.

Then he showed us a family photo of his four children. He shared how difficult it is to make a living as a Palestinian Christian, with the restrictions of the wall separating the residents of Bethlehem. Later my friend purchased several woven scarves she wanted. When we decided to leave, he offered to send his son to accompany us the few short blocks to our Hotel Manger Square.

He then surprised me by choosing for me an oval olive wood Nativity scene that he said he’d designed himself. He would not allow me to pay for it. In the foreground were the three wise men and directly behind them a wooden wall towered over the manger scene. At that moment, the metaphor struck me about the gravity of the situation. Yet he spoke with sincerity and sadness, not anger.

Before I left on the trip, I read “Blood Brothers” by Elias Chacour, as recommended by the sponsors. The author tells of the difficulties of his family losing both their land and home when he was a young boy. He grew up to become a priest and founded a peacemaking school in Ibillin in the Holy Land. Chacour continues daily to work toward peace between the factions in his homeland, only with forgiveness and without holding ill will. Each time I look at the manger scene on my mantle, I am reminded to make choices whenever possible to promote a connection rather than create a separation, regardless of the outcome.


Want to see and hear more?

Sara Aeikens will give a presentation about the Holy Land trip, with photos, at noon Feb. 26 at the First Presbyterian Church.

Sara Aeikens is an Albert Lea resident.