After breakfast we walked out the Jaffa Gate (tour buses are not allowed in the old city) and caught our bus to Bethlehem.
We crossed a security check point from Israel into the West Bank. Our first stop was the Shepherds’ Field, a shrine administered by the Franciscans, built over caves or grottoes where shepherds sheltered with their flocks grazing on the hillsides, similar to those to whom an angel announced that the Savior has been born who is Christ the Lord. So go unto Bethlehem and you will find an infant lying in a manger and his mother with him. An octagonal building housed a chapel, several side altars, and mosaics depicting scenes from the birth of Jesus.
Maher shared some thoughts for us to consider about Mary who was heavy with child in an unfamiliar place away from home, with no one to help her birth her Son, with only Joseph who was probably not much help, and knowing that many mothers and babies don’t survive the trauma of birth. Christmas for her was one filled with fear and uncertainty. We only think of joy and gladness. But it was likely far from her experience.
After visiting this structure we took a look at a more rustic cave that had been modified for gathering a small group for mass. Nice and intimate. We also saw some excavations of an ancient monastery on the grounds.
A short distance from the Shepherds’ Field is Our Lady of Fatima parish in Beit Sahour where we joined the Roman Catholic community for Sunday Mass. I was able to concelebrate, so I have no photos. Plus the whole Mass was in Arabic. The second reading and the gospel were read in English (after the Arabic) and I helped distribute communion. Somebody remarked how it was encouraging to see so many young people. We even had 8 altar servers and lots of incense.
After the homily, Fr. Isa gave the Anointing of the Sick to anyone who wished to receive it. Yesterday was the World Day of Prayer for the Sick, instituted by Pope John Paul II some time back. And the collection was for earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria. Last I looked, the death toll had reached 33 000.
After Mass over coffee around 11:30 AM we presented Fr. Isa and Fr. Michael a banner of St. John the Evangelist Church. Then we headed to Casa Nova Bethlehem for lunch.
We were already in Nativity Square which I recognized from photos after we turned the corner to the church entrance. The door was tiny and low. The original arch doorway was like any other entrance to a large church. But it had been resized a couple of times so anyone who entered would have to bend low, a reminder that God Almighty came among us a humble fragile child. And we need to humble ourselves to properly behold this mystery.
The basilica is the oldest church in the Holy Land. It was commissioned by the Emperor Constantine shortly after his mother St. Helena’s visit to Jerusalem in the early 4th century. Three monasteries were built on the site, a Greek Orthodox, an Armenian Apostolic, and a Roman Catholic. The basilica houses the location of the birth of Jesus in a cave or grotto that has undergone many renovations over the years. Opposite from the 14-pointed star that marks the place of Jesus’ birth is the stable in which the Holy Child lay.
Upon exiting the basilica we entered the Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria next door. In the courtyard was an image of St. Jerome who spent 20 years in Bethlehem translating the original Greek and Aramaic texts of the Bible into Latin–the Vulgate. He is buried in the crypt and is declared a Doctor of the Church.
After dinner this evening we spent time in reflection and prayer together in our upper room. I know it takes me time to get my thoughts together, and I can’t really pay attention to others speak while I think about what I’m going to say. But that’s just the parameters we work with heedless of our personal styles. But when the Holy Spirit strikes, you can’t help but give him voice.
At the Basilica of the Nativity we encountered other visitors, pilgrims and tourists, it’s hard to tell them apart at times. I know I might look like a tourist snapping photos left and right even in the holiest of places. But a pilgrim comes with even just a little faith, while a tourist is in it for entirely different reasons. And until we take the time to reflect and ponder, we miss the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through our experience. God Almighty humbled himself becoming flesh the Son of a virgin to show us the depth of his love. The days of Holy Week are fast approaching for us. As at the Transfiguration we cannot pitch tents and stay where God’s glory can be enjoyed. Rather we must come down this mountain to climb yet another, one of suffering and death that we might know the glory of the resurrection.
Rolo B Castillo © 2023
2 responses to “Bethlehem & Church of the Nativity”
Looks a wonderful experience, thanks for sharing.
Much to ponder and appreciate … and more to come.