We were expecting to go to Bethlehem to visit the Basilica of the Birth…. but sadly our plans had to change. So, as well as not being able to see the church, we were unable to send half the group to L’Arche, Bethlehem which is one of Bishop Christopher’s Lent Call projects.  As a result we all went to the Convent of the Missionary Sisters of Sion – also known as the Comboni sisters. We were sad not to go to Bethlehem but were pleased that we were all able to hear first hand about the work of the sisters. 

We were fortunate to be able to celebrate the Eucharist in their Chapel and they were very welcoming as we were rather a large party for them.  The sisters told us that they usually received only one coach load of people at a time and here we were two coaches happily arriving.  They kept bringing in extra chairs to make sure that we could all sit down and I was pleased that as the service began one of the Sisters took me up to the balcony so that I could get some photographs of what was going on. 

After the Eucharist, at which Andrew Nunn preached (you can read his sermon at the end of this blog) we had tea, coffee and biscuits before the pilgrims from the red coach went up onto the roof with Sister Alicia, who showed us how the wall had been erected around their house.  She explained that when she first came to the house in Bethany, she was going to Palestine and, for a while, the house was in Palestine. But the other houses near to theirs protested that they should not be behind the separation wall and after a long legal battle won their case.  This meant that the Sisters’ house was also outside the separation wall and eventually, as the wall was built, they were separated from the children who came to their kindergarten and from those whom they had wanted to help.

Standing on the roof and pointing to the wall Sister Alicia spoke about the effect that this has had on their work but most especially on the people who could no longer easily get to work or to school.  She spoke most especially of the need for pregnant women to have very detailed scans as they need to book a 24 hour pass to get through the walls to go to hospital.  It is so hard to imagine how women can manage, as it seems impossible that they can get the expected delivery dates just right and then deliver their babies and be back through the wall all in 24 hours.   There are hospitals the other side of the separation wall but they are 50 or more miles away and getting there once someone has gone into labour is very hard. 

Sister Alicia also told us about the effect that the wall is having on the work of the hospitals that now serve the people.  She explained that they have become very overcrowded because they have to cater for so many more people but with no more resources.  Many people from Bethany had traditionally worked in Jerusalem which used to be just a short journey away and looked to there for their healthcare and now getting to work is very difficult as they need to get passes to it or to go to medical appointments.  Life is hard.

The sisters were so concerned not to lose touch with those that they wanted to serve that they now have a house for some of the sisters behind the separation wall and Sister Aziz told us all about the work that she and then sisters that live in the house the other side of the Wall do.  They work with the Bedouin community in Bethany who used to be rich until they had to give up their nomadic lives and could no longer rely upon selling their flocks for income.  They need help with education for their children and the women need help with homemaking and simple things like tailoring so that they can shorten clothes etc and with the basics of child care.  So the sisters, who asked the Bedouins themselves what they would like help with, work tirelessly to help them to be able to live their new lives and to thrive.  We were able to buy little baskets and other things that they had made as gifts for people back home. 

We left the Comboni sisters with lots to think about as we headed to Jaffa for lunch and for some of us to have a brisk and blustery walk on the beach.  Back to Jerusalem, where some left the bus to go with Andrew Nunn through the Jaffa gate to the Christian quarter and a look around. Others went back to the hotel and rested or dropped off their bags before going exploring too.

Our evening meeting had lots to think about as the work of the Comboni sisters had touched so many people. Here was a good opportunity too to hear from Morwenna Orton, one of our Pilgrims, about L’Arche.  She talked to us about the London L’Arche community and how the community is working to deal with the fallout from the Report on Jean Vanier, L’Arche’s founder.

A full day ends with compline but not before the Dean of Southwark, Andrew Nunn, has explained the changes to be made in the programme for Saturday.  We all then go our separate ways to prepare for the morning’s audience at the Latin Patriarchate and for moving onto Galilee.

It has been wonderful to be based in Jerusalem and we are all looking forward to a last bit of time in the Old City in the morning before we leave for the Ron Beach Hotel.

Sermon by the Dean of Southwark at today’s Eucharist in the Comboni Sisters’ Chapel

We can’t get to Bethlehem, it’s raining and we have to change our plans.  But life is like that so often.  Travelling doesn’t always go to plan.  It didn’t for Mary and Joseph when they arrived in Bethlehem.  They hadn’t been able to book ahead and so when they arrived in the crowded town they could have been left without anywhere to stay had it not been for the generosity of the innkeeper who gave them the warmth and security of the stable.  It was there, in less than perfect circumstances that Jesus was born.  But this place is all about the incarnation, and this Eucharist is all about the incarnation, and the incarnation is all about God entering our reality, with all its imperfections, in order to redeem us, in or die to save us.  God embraces what it means to be human including all that could have been better, all that could have been different.  It was not the perfection of our Christmas card fantasises that God experienced but the gritty reality.  It is reality in which the Comboni Sisters live and witness and minister, here with the security wall right outside their windows, dividing them from the community they are here to serve.  This is the gritty reality of the incarnation, the ugliness of the wall contrasting with the beautiful graciousness of God.

If we had been in the Shepherds’ Fields for this Mass we would have been thinking about shepherds at the time of Jesus.  If you live with sheep you end up smelling like them.  These guys were outcasts from their society, they were rough, tough, they were excluded from mainstream life and kept on the edge of things.  They were not people you would want to sit next too on the Tube!  But in the skies above their fields angels sang of the glory of God and delivered to them the good news that Jesus had been born in the town below and they were to go their to greet the new baby.  They, of all people, were sent from the edge to the centre, excluded by society, included by God.  And they listened to these angels and they abandoned their sheep and they headed down the hills and found things just as the angels had said.  

But this is not the only amazing thing.  The fact is that under Roman law the testimony of a shepherd was discounted.  They weren’t to be trusted.  You couldn’t call them as a witness.  Who would believe what a shepherd said?  But our amazing God decides to entrust these unreliable witnesses with the news of the birth of the Son.  These guys, drawn in from the edge to the centre by the inclusive love of God, became the first witnesses to the incarnation, just as Mary in the garden would be the first witness to the resurrection.  And confounding all expectations, when people heard them, they believed them.

St Luke throughout his gospel shows ways in which God always includes the excluded, draws in the marginalised, makes rich those who are poor, honours those who are dishonoured.  Whether it’s shepherds or women, or the anawim, those like Simeon and Anna in the Temple, God takes the people on the edge and makes them the people at the centre of the story, where they encounter God.

And why does God do this?  Simply so that you, so that we, so that I can be here, included, the least liable of people, yet loved and honoured and saved and redeemed, the people who love in the grit of reality and yet who know the love of God.  And here we are at this Mass, and bread will be broken and wine will be outpoured and the body and blood of the Lord will be shared, with us.  This is what it is all about, the overwhelming, all including, all inclusive love of God, who includes even us.