(Last of two parts)
In November 2019, I joined a pilgrimage organized by Sr. Nimfa Eborra, a Bible scholar and a licensed spiritual guide in Israel. With me also as pilgrims were my sister and her husband, my brother, and our niece.
It was actually my fifth trip to the Holy Land. My first was in July 2014, to attend a monthlong study program, “Emunah: Faith and Mistrust in the Book of Numbers,” at Bat Kol Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. It was a unique program for “Christians studying the Bible within its Jewish milieu, using Jewish sources.”
My Bat Kol classmates and I planned to visit Bethlehem but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that had turned from bad to worse made it impossible. Those who were worried for their security and wanted to go home could not do so as flights to and from Tel Aviv were cancelled. We were told that it was best to stay where there were bomb shelters as one had to be inside a shelter within 30 seconds after hearing the air-raid siren.
Moreover, we were told, the entrance to and exit from Bethlehem had been closed. Even in the best of times, one is required to pass through a checkpoint in going to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Described as a Palestinian city in the West Bank, Bethlehem is part of the Palestinian Authority.
The Church of the Nativity has survived invasions, rebellions, fires, and earthquakes for centuries. But with today’s complicated political situation, peace is constantly fragile. I know of some people who are scared or wary of going to Bethlehem for security and safety reasons. But if blessed and given the chance, I would gladly go there again.
In an online conversation with CoverStory.ph, Mary Ann Payne, an Australian Catholic who has visited Bethlehem six times, cited what she considered a significant report: The Church of the Nativity was saved from being destroyed by Islamic fighters who thought it was a special site that belonged to them because, upon entering it, they saw mosaics of the Three Wise Men.
The mistake suggests a commonality that may serve as a uniting factor.
In its website page, the Palestine Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in fact points out a common root: that the city of Bethlehem is holy to both Christians and Muslims. It is acknowledged as the birthplace of Jesus, who is known as the Son of God by Christians and as a divinely inspired prophet by Muslims.
Apart from Mary Ann, I first visited Jerusalem with Sr. Maureena Fritz, founder of the Bat Kol Institute, and other members of the Bat Kol International Leadership Team (or BKILT, an association of Bat Kol alumni). Sr. Maureena recently visited Bethlehem, joining many faithful pilgrims who were able to return to the Holy Land in large numbers after the pandemic. She said she prayed for each BKILT member and for her loved ones by name.
I would like to do the same. I am quite moved to remember that I prayed and reflected where millions of pilgrims before me had done through the ages.
I have happy memories of my three visits to Bethlehem both as a pilgrim and as a tourist. My most memorable times were in the places associated with the birth of Jesus—Manger Square, Church of St. Catherine, Milk Grotto, and Shepherd’s Field.
Manger Square is where the Church of the Nativity is located and where one can find the Palestinian Peace Center and, across from it, stores selling olive tree products and Holy Land mementos. I treasure a beautiful sculptured bust of the Virgin Mary made from the olive tree, which I bought from an Arab-Christian store in the Square.
Through the years, Manger Square has become a focal point for all Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, where locals and pilgrims gather to sing carols before the Midnight Mass. I remember that one of the first photos I took when I arrived in Bethlehem was that of a giant Christmas tree crowning the Square.
But more than one Christmas Eve services are now held on different days. The reason: Liturgically, the Roman Catholic Church follows the modern Gregorian Calendar, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Armenian Apostolic Church follow the Julian Calendar. Thus, Catholics celebrate the Nativity on Dec. 25, and the Orthodox celebrations are held on Jan. 7.
I remember watching a procession to mark the first Sunday of Advent in Manger Square, and seeing Palestinian Arab high schoolers from the Terra Sancta schools of the Franciscans. Their very pretty faces and curly corn-colored hair reminded me of the image of the Virgin Mary, and made me realize that the image of a beautiful Mother of God is not a Western creation, after all.
Adjacent to the Church of the Nativity is the 19th-century Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine. It draws pilgrims as it is said to be where Jesus appeared to St. Catherine of Alexandria in the 4th century and predicted her martyrdom.
But it is most famous for the celebration of the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, which is televised to millions of viewers worldwide. Sr. Nimfa, who has attended Christmas Eve masses in the church, recalled that the pews were removed during the celebration to allow more people inside.
It was only during my third visit to Bethlehem, with Sr. Nimfa as guide, that I learned of the underground caves at St. Catherine’s. Steps lead down to grottoes holding shrines and ancient tombs. A passage leads from the caves to the adjacent Church of the Nativity.
Among those buried in the caves is St. Jerome, known for the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate. Legend says that the present chapel of St Jerome was his study room. In the church courtyard is a statue honoring him.
Milk Grotto, also built atop a cave, is near the Church of the Nativity. Tradition locates this site as the burial place of the innocents killed by Herod the Great after the birth of Jesus. Tradition also holds the cave as where Mary and Joseph stopped while fleeing Herod’s soldiers on their way to Egypt. It is believed that here, drops of Mary’s breast milk spilled to the ground while she was nursing Jesus, and turned the grotto’s red-brown stones to creamy white.
I was surprised to see an Arab woman enter the church in Milk Grotto. I learned that the Grotto is sacred to Christian and Muslim pilgrims, and that local women, whether Christian or Muslim, especially the newly married and those with fertility problems, frequently visit to seek Mary’s intercession. The belief is that by mixing soft white chalk into their food, and by praying to Our Lady of the Milk, they will have more milk to nurse their baby, or they will become pregnant.
With the church’s restoration completed by the Franciscans in 2007, the Grotto’s walls and ceiling have reverted to the original light, nearly white, color. This is deemed remarkable as all the other grottos discovered in Bethlehem are in the colors of red and brown.
Milk Grotto houses an altar, an icon of Mary nursing, and many depictions of her and the Baby Jesus. It has a perpetual adoration area where I prayed to give thanks for the gift of my mother and for all the mothers I know.
The Gospel does not exactly locate the place where angels appeared to announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds, but ancient tradition has fixed it to be Shepherd’s Field, not far from Beit Sahour, which is now an eastern suburb of Bethlehem.
A new edifice, the Chapel of the Angels, has been built near the traditional site of the underground Church of the Shepherds. The tent-shaped chapel is known for its beautiful paintings, or reliefs. One painting shows an angel proclaiming the good news, capturing in fine nuance the shepherds’ frightened faces. The other paintings depict the classic manger scene, with the shepherds arriving to observe the great miracle, and the Christmas story in detail.
Beyond the chapel is a cave for small group worship. I recall that in the dimly lit chapel, it was a surreal experience to sing carols and take turns with the other pilgrims in holding a figure of the Baby Jesus.
Online, I asked Mary Ann about her takeaway from her visits to Bethlehem. And she said: “In Bethlehem, I had a sense of Emmanuel, God with us. I carry that sense with me always.”
For Sr. Nimfa, the learnings have been many: “I learned that these [holy places] are a fount of reflections. Each pilgrimage there is a new experience and it brings different insights. It is like you can never exhaust the beauty and significance of the place. It is like being reconnected again and again to the faith and to the source of all grace—the Lord.”
It is indeed a blessing to be reconnected to one’s faith and the fount of blessings, especially God’s gift of the presence of his Son. I hope to visit Bethlehem once again to regain the feeling of unspeakable peace—not just once, but many times.