Pilgrimage to the Holy Land Part 3 – Bethlehem


Tuesday 16th October:

Basilica of the Nativity.  It marks the place of Christ’s birth and is also one of the oldest surviving Christian churches.  The gospel accounts don’t mention a cave, but less than a century later, both Justin Martyr (160AD) and the Protoevangelium of James say Jesus was born in a cave. This is reasonable, as many houses in the area were built in front of a cave. The cave part would have been used for stabling and storage – thus the manger.

  • The Door of Humility, a small rectangular entrance to the church, was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters, and to force even the most important visitor to dismount from his horse as he entered the holy place. The doorway was reduced from an earlier Crusader doorway, the pointed arch of which can still be seen above the current door. The outline of the Justinian square entrance can also be seen above the door.
  • The nave survives intact from Justinian’s time, although the roof is 15th-century with 19th-century restorations.  Thirty of the nave’s 44 columns carry Crusader paintings of saints and the Virgin and Child, although age and lighting conditions make them hard to see.
  • Fragments of high-quality wall mosaics dating from the 1160s decorate both sides of the nave. Each side once had three registers, of which we know the details because of a description made in 1628. The lowest depicted the ancestors of Jesus; the middle contained the decrees of provincial and ecumenical councils; and the top has a series of angels between the windows. The name of the artist, Basilius Pictor, appears at the foot of the third angel from the right on the north wall.
  • Floor mosaics can be seen through trap doors which survive from the original basilica. The mosaics feature complex geometric designs with birds, flowers and vine patterns, making a rich and elaborate carpet for Constantine’s church.
  • Grotto of the Nativity, a rectangular cavern beneath the church, is the Church of the Nativity’s focal point. Entered by a flight of steps by the church altar, this is the cave that has been honoured as the site of Christ’s birth since at least the 2nd century.  A silver star in the floor marks the very spot where Christ is believed to have been born. The star’s Latin inscription reads, “Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born”

Church of St. Catherine is a Catholic church and Franciscan monastery connected to the mostly Orthodox Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  The church is said to be built on the site of Christ’s appearance to St. Catherine of Alexandria and his prediction of her martyrdom (c.310 AD).

St Jerome’s Cave & tomb.  From a cave beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem came the most enduring version of the Bible ever translated.  In this underground study, St Jerome spent 30 years translating the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.  The scholarly Dalmatian priest began his task around AD 386. The text he produced in St Jerome’s Cave was the first official vernacular version of the Bible. Known as the Vulgate, it remained the authoritative version for Catholics until the 20th century.   The caves contain his tomb and burial place, although his remains have since been taken to Rome. 

Milk Grotto.  This grotto, with a modern Franciscan chapel built above it, is considered sacred because tradition has it that the Holy Family took refuge here during the Slaughter of the Innocents, before their flight into Egypt. While Mary was nursing Jesus here, a drop of milk fell to the ground, turning it white.  Both Christians and Muslims believe scrapings from the stones in the grotto boost the quantity of a mother’s milk and enhance fertility. Mothers usually mix it in their drinking water; would-be mothers place the rock under their mattress.   The Friars have hundreds of letters from women who have given birth who have previously been thought of as infertile. 

Our Lady of the Wall.  Created by Ian Knowles, Founder-Director of the Bethlehem Icon School (and creator of the icon in our Memorial Chapel).   His most extraordinary commission is The Virgin Mother of the Church icon, at the behest of local Arab Christians on the Palestinian side of the Israeli separation wall. Better known as Our Lady of the Wall, it places the Sacred amid the graffiti alongside the people’s suffering, but in contrast to violence and injustice, in the hope of peace and reconciliation for all.   The top half of the picture shows Our Lady in a pregnant state surrounded by olive trees and a crescent moon.  The bottom half shows the retaining wall with a set of keys on the left and through the “key hole” a landscape of Jerusalem, somewhere where most Palestinians cannot get to.

Prayer to Our Lady who brings down walls:

Most Holy Mother of God, we pray to you as mother of the Church, mother of all Christians who suffer.  We beg you, through your ardent intercession, to bring down this wall, the walls of our hearts, and all the walls that generate hatred, violence, fear, and indifference between people and between nations.  You who crushed the ancient serpent by your feet, gather and unit us under your virginal cloak, protect us from all evil and open forever in our lives the gate of hope.  Bring to birth in us and in our world the civilisation of love that sprang forth from the Cross and Resurrection of your divine Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns forever.  AMEN

Ein Karem:

  • Home of John the Baptist.  A Catholic church and monastery built over Byzantine and Crusaders chapels, and dedicated to John the Baptist.   Inside the church is a cave which marks the birthplace of John the Baptist.
  • Church of the Visitation.  The Franciscan Visitation church in the village of Ein Karem, on the west side of Jerusalem, is named after Virgin Mary’s visit to the summer house of the parents of John the Baptist.  As per Luke, Mary visited Elizabeth when both were pregnant. During the visit, the baby leapt with joy in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, knowing that Mary was about to give birth to the son of God. Mary then stayed with her cousin for 3 months until John was born.

Wednesday 17th October:

Western Wall.  The Western Wall in Jerusalem is the holiest of Jewish sites, sacred because it is a remnant of the Herodian retaining wall that once enclosed and supported the Second Temple. It has also been called the “Wailing Wall” by European observers because for centuries Jews have gathered here to lament the loss of their temple.  The Western Wall Plaza, the large open area that faces the Western Wall, functions as an open-air synagogue that can accommodate tens of thousands of worshipers. Prayers take place here day and night, and special services are held here as well.   The tunnel running from the men’s section along the wall contains a library. 

St Anne’s Church.  The Church of St Anne is the best-preserved Crusader church in Jerusalem. It marks the site of the home of Jesus’ maternal grandparents, Anne and Joachim, and the birthplace of the Virgin Mary.  Located just north of the Temple Mount, about 50 metres inside St Stephen’s or Lions’ Gate, the church stands in a courtyard with trees, shrubs and flowers. Its tranquillity contrasts with the bustling streets and alleys of the Muslim Quarter. 

Pools of Bethesda.  Archaeology has enabled a pool at Bethesda in Jerusalem to be identified as the scene of one of Jesus’ miracles. This was the healing of the paralysed man who had waited for 38 years for someone to help him into the pool “when the water is stirred,”  an event believed to have curative powers.  The Gospel account says Jesus told the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk”, and immediately he was made well (John 5:2-18).

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.  The Latin Patriarch is our equivalent of an Archbishop, and The Archdiocese of Jerusalem has jurisdiction for all Latin Church Catholics in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Cyprus.  In the Catholic Church, the title Patriarch is customarily reserved to the highest ranking bishops of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The Patriarch of Jerusalem is one of four bishops of the Latin Church to be called a patriarch, the others being the Patriarchs of Venice, Lisbon and the East Indies (Goa, India).

H.E. William Shomali.   After Mass in the beautiful church, we had the honour of being received in audience by the Patriarchal Vicar for Jerusalem, H.E. William Shomali, an assistant Bishop to the Patriarch.   He was born in Beit Sahour (Palestine) on May 15, 1950. Ordained a priest on June 24, 1972. Ordained a Bishop on May 27, 2010 in Bethlehem. 

He spoke to us about the plight of the Christians in The Holy Land and a fascinating video of the audience (which lasts 7 minutes) can be viewed below:

View Video

On 10th December 2012, the Bishop released the following statement concerning the recent “8 Days War” between Israel and Hamas and his hopes for peace, and request for prayers:

Bishop Williams’ Statement

Andrew Richardson