Palm Sunday and Bethlehem

Another crazy week in Jerusalem! This is a holiday week here in the city, so things have been a lot busier than usual with all the tourists in town. Sunday afternoon we had class in the morning and all afternoon got to be a part of the Palm Sunday walk. Commemorating the final return of Jesus into Jerusalem, thousands of people from all over the world gather together with large palm branches for the whole afternoon. We started at the Bethphage Church where traditionally Jesus got on his donkey to ride into the city. The top Catholic clergy starting the procession, with assigned groups such as the the Boy Scouts to follow in a certain order. People were supposed to mix in after the parade had gone by, but since we BYU kids can't stand to miss anything here, we jumped in and were part of the initial parade! We starting singing and walking through the streets lined with thousands of people. It was really funny because the tourists from around the world kept taking pictures of us thinking we were important. The walk took us next to the Garden of Gethsemane and up through Lion's Gate. It ended at a church just inside the Old City where there were huge bands singing Hosanna  songs dancing around. It was so amazing to walk that path and prepare for the Holy Week in Jerusalem.

Bethlehem is only 6 miles away from Jerusalem, but it takes about 40 minutes to get there because of the checkpoint and traffic associated with that. We started at Bethlehem University which is a college with about 2000 Palestinian students. The campus is really pretty and in good shape considering it was bombed in 2001. We sat in a question and answer session with 4 Palestinian students. This was one of the most amazing things we have ever done here. For the first time we were able to ask every question about their life behind the Separation Wall and get a true perspective on what Palestinians think about the conflict. Some of the things they said literally blew my mind. Most of them had never met an Israeli and three of them had never been to Jerusalem. One girl travels about two hours every day to come to school. Living in dorms isn't allowed because they could be a target for an Israeli attack. One of the questions a BYU student asked used the word terrorist, and things got really tense for a few minutes. All the Palestinians got really defensive and they all starting talking really fast about how the Palestinians didn't do anything wrong, they were simply retaliating to the attacks and the lifestyle Israel imposes on them. This was the first time a lot of us were able to realize that the story is very two sided, but the information we get as Americans is very biased. That afternoon we were able to spend time in Old Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity. This is the site where ancient tradition says the stable was where Jesus was born. It is a very large Catholic church that is the oldest standing Byzantine church in Israel, so it's a few hundred years old. It was hard to try to think about how it looked when Christ was born, but we were able to spend some time in the cave they think is part of the place he was born which was a really good opportunity to reflect on everything and feel the spirit. We had a little bit of time to walk around the square by the Church and I got a really cool nativity set. That evening we crossed the Separation Wall back into Israel and ate dinner at Shepherd's Hill. It is this large field on a few hills that overlook the city of Bethlehem and is where scholars believe the shepherds were when the angels came to tell them Jesus was born. Though it was freezing and windy, we were able to have a really good devotional and spend some time having a class lecture about the birth of Christ. It was such an unforgettable experience to be sitting there and realizing that this is the place where everything started.

The rest of this week has been packed. We had a huge paper due and three finals. We're all trying to find that balance between going out in the city or staying in. The city is overwhelming with visitors coming in for Easter and the Jews are celebrating Purim this week as well. This is a week long celebration commemorating the book of Esther and all she did to save the Jews. They dress up in costumes and have mass street parties, kind of like Mardi Gras. 

We are going to Galilee on Sunday morning and get to relax on the beach for ten days! Oh and spend three hours a day in New Testament class! We get to get a tan, but there is a trade off, we don't get internet, so it might be a while before I post another update. 

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