We had visited the river Jordan in the morning – the traditional site where John baptised those who came to him in repentance. As we left the river I began to wonder what we would find at our next stop. We were due in Bethlehem for lunch.
On the journey there we had our first experience of Jerusalem traffic as we drove around the old city and then out again – no bypass evidently. At this point we had to leave our Jewish guide Shuki because this is Palestinian territory and no Jews are allowed to enter. As we approached Bethlehem I can honestly say it was the only time I felt intimidated on the entire trip. This was the first time we saw a wall, and it was only the third time we had passed through a checkpoint, but we had only been in Palestine a couple of days.
Perched on a hill at the edge of the Judean desert, Bethlehem is famous as the childhood home of David, who was named king here as he tended his father’s sheep. It is also the birthplace of Jesus and a major site of pilgrimage since the construction of the Church of the Nativity in the 4th Century AD.
The town itself was very quiet and rather surreal. I was nervous about coming to Bethlehem – I wanted so much to experience something of the drama of the birth of Jesus, to really enter into the story. We made our way with a local guide through the backstreets to the Church of the Nativity, and as we approached we realized where all the people were – gathered in and around the church.
In front of the church is a courtyard. We looked around for a grand entrance somewhere, but realised that in fact you enter the church through a very low door known as the’ Door of Humility’. It is so low that everyone has to stoop to enter.
The church was dark, old and different. It was strange being there, not only because of the church but just to be in that place and to imagine it without the church building – as it would have been all those years ago when God paid a home visit to earth in the form of a child. The guide was very frustrating and talked the whole time – I had to take myself away to wait quietly in the queue so I could think and pray.
The first evidence of a cave here being venerated as Christ’s birthplace is in the writing of St Justin Martyr around AD 160. But it wasn’t until 326 that Roman emperor Constantine ordered a church to be built and in 530 it was rebuilt by Justinian. The church is now in the shared custody of the Roman Catholic, Amenian and Greek Orthodox churches, with the Greeks caring for the Grotto of the Nativity.
The Grotto is the church’s focal point. When you eventually get there, you enter down steps and find yourself in a cave where a silver star is set in the floor over the spot where Christ is said to have been born. This is where you can kneel and look through the star to the cave below. There is no doubt that a great deal of imagination is required but as in all of the sites in the Holy Land you have to put yourself in the story and see it as it was, not as it is now; be aware of the meaning of the place and look beyond what you are actually seeing.
There are many fascinating elements to the church of the Nativity including the Milk Grotto which is considered sacred because tradition has it that the Mary and Joseph took refuge here protecting Jesus from the Massacre which Herod had ordered. It was from here that it is said the family fled to Egypt.
Next to the Church of the Nativity is the cloister of St Catherine’s Church where St Jerome completed a new version of the Bible in the 4th Century, inspired by the pope’s suggestion that a single book should replace the many differing texts in circulation. It became known as the Vulgate.
We left the square and walked back through the old part of the town which gave us a completely different perspective. From here you can see the Shepherd’s Field which would have changed little since the time the angels came to visit the shepherds. Bethlehem is an altogether fascinating place but not necessarily in the way that you would expect it to be.