In a trip organized by the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, 21 locals boarded a plane bound for Tel Aviv at the end of November to spend eight days in the Holy Land, an experience many say has made the Bible come to life.
“We read that Jesus was born and placed in a manger,” said Holli Edwards, “but what does that really mean to most of us?”
For several travelers, that meaning has changed. The image of the first Christmas – Mary and Joseph being sent to a barn when there was no room at the inn, surrounded by tame livestock, in the company of wise men and shepherds, with the Star of Bethlehem shining down from above – is a strong and pervasive one this time of year.
But what Edwards and her travel companions saw near Bethlehem has interrupted that iconic scene for them.
The group toured the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, traditionally identified as sitting atop a cave where Jesus was born. The church has recently been added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s list of world heritage sites in danger. According to the organization, it dates back to 339 A.D.
The building is ornate, with tile mosaic floors, covered walls and other decoration Ð but, according to Sue Campeaux, “you don’t even get the feel that you’re in a cave.”
So for Campeaux and others in the group, it was especially meaningful to visit another site, a cave that remains relatively undisturbed, and, according to some traditions, would have been very similar to where Jesus would have been born.
At the cave, the tour guide talked about how people lived two millennia ago Ñ that their animals would have been their livelihoods.
“That’s where Mary and Joseph would have been,” Campeaux said. “That would have been in the warmest part of the cave.”
And Jesus in the manger would likely have had a colder, harder bed than most imagine. Mangers back then were often made of stone, she said.
“We still put a pretty spin on it when we look at the little nativity scenes at Christmas,” Edwards said. “But, it’s not pretty. It’s far from the comfort that we all have, even the poorest of us.”
In addition to his birthplace, the group made stops along many sites that were key in Jesus’ later life and ministry. The tour was led by Maranatha Christian Tours. Elaine Crossley, one of the organizers, said the local group traveled along with other groups from across the United States, visiting places such as Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River, where about 10 members of the group were baptized – one for the first time – in the same waters where Jesus was baptized by John.
The church members waded out into the river one by one, where the Rev. Derek Staples, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, waited.
“The water was cold; it was late in the evening,” said Henry Campeaux. “He dipped me in the water again, and I came up real fast because it was cold. I almost hit him I came up so fast.”
Campeaux was baptized decades ago in a baptistry in his Louisiana church. “To me, this was even better,” he said. “Being baptized in the Jordan River – that was the greatest thing.”
Staples said it was a significant event, “standing in the waters where our Lord and Savior was baptized by John and dedicating our lives anew to advancing the gospel.”
Staples said the old city of Jerusalem was a highlight of the trip. The group approached the city from the Mount of Olives … “which is where our Lord approached the city during his triumphal entry,” he said. “We walked on the same path Jesus took into the city while they were laying palms in his path and shouting, ‘Hosanna!’”
The group also walked the Via Dolorosa, traditionally believed to be the path of suffering that Jesus took as he carried the cross to the site of his crucifixion.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Gospels of Matthew and Mark say Jesus took his disciples before he was betrayed by Judas, Staples said seeing the ancient trees was striking, “knowing these trees were there when our Lord knelt and prayed.”
The group visited the home where Jesus was believed to have been taken and flogged. “Our tour guide and pastor both spoke about what happened there,” said Sue Campeaux. “It was just heartbreaking.”
Sue Campeaux said it’s always difficult thinking about Jesus’ pain around Easter, but actually being at the site where it would have happened made it so much more real.
“He didn’t deserve that. We did,” she said. “It was heartbreaking for all of us. I think we were all in tears.”
But visiting the Garden Tomb, an alternative site that some believe is where Jesus was buried after crucifixion, was the most peaceful part of the trip for her because of its undeveloped, natural environment and peaceful, contemplative atmosphere.
“Looking at the Garden Tomb where many people say Jesus lay,” Staples said he was reminded of 1 Corinthians 15:20, which reads “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept.”
“I think that was the climax for us,” Staples said. “That was the celebration.”