A pilgrimage should be a time of prayer. Sometimes this is much easier said than done, especially in a place like the Holy Land where there are often huge crowds. You sometimes have to rush in and out of places to make room for the next pilgrim(s). Today was a day of intense prayer for me, as we made our way into Bethlehem and beyond. I have to admit that I am getting very little sleep, and we’re moving at what sometimes seems a breakneck pace. I’m loving it!!
Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory here in Israel. Before we made our way into Bethlehem, we stopped at Herod’s Tomb. This is a pretty large mountain that was actually man made. Herod was a very paranoid king and wanted to build himself a fortress. So he actually enlisted over a thousand men to move a mountain from one spot to another. Inside this mountain is where he built his fortress. The importance of this place is that when Jesus talked about having faith enough to move a mountain, He was talking about something that had been done by Herod. But faith in Jesus can make it easy!
Next we went to Shepherd’s Field. This is the place where the angels came to announce that a savior had been born. Of course, they announced it to a bunch of shepherds who were out with their flocks. Shepherds did not have a great reputation in those days. Yet God chose to deliver the message of the birth of the Messiah to them first. He chose to give the message of the birth of his Son to the poor first.
An overriding theme of our day today was caves. These shepherds stayed in caves, for a number of reasons. First, the caves offered some protection from the heat of day, and they were warmer during the cold nights. Second, the caves offered protection from the wolves and other wild animals that roamed the countryside looking for sheep to chow down on. When you go to Shepherd’s Field, you get to go into these caves. The ones in the upper part of the property now have benches, exhibits and in one, an altar. Even still, you know you are inside a cave.
On the lower part of the property are a series of rough caves, some connected by tunnels. It is very dark and tight in these tunnels. But did we have a great time spelunking through them! Warning: if you’re claustrophobic, you may want to avoid this part of Shepherd’s Field.
Next we made our way up to the Church of the Nativity. But before we went into that church, we went through Manger Square, where Pope Francis will be saying Mass on Sunday. Passing through Manger Square, we went up a side street to a place that I had never heard of before, the Milk Grotto. This is the place where Mary took the baby Jesus to nurse him, thus the name. It is a nearby cave that would have been cleaner than the cave in which Jesus was born.
In the Milk Grotto are some icons and images of the Blessed Virgin nursing the baby Jesus that I had never seen before. They are strikingly beautiful, and I found myself very moved by them. It was in the Milk Grotto that I had a most profound moment of prayer.
There is a chapel in the Milk Grotto where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. As I knelt down to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, I was overcome with emotion and began sobbing uncontrollably. The Blessed Mother was speaking into my heart about how much she cared for all mothers, and especially the mothers in my life – my wife, my mom and especially my sister, Nancy. Nancy is under hospice care and is living with Michelle and I. Nancy is a mom who lost a son a few years ago. Mary let me know that Nancy is in her loving care, and she will lead her to Jesus at the proper time. I can barely type this as I am again overcome with emotion. Please pray for Nancy.
After leaving the Milk Grotto, we made our way to the Church of the Nativity. The main church is actually run by the Greek Orthodox. The inside of the church is undergoing major renovation. To get into the church, you have to go through a very small opening. It is referred to as the Door of Humility, because it is so small that most people have to lower their heads to get in.
Once inside the church, you begin to get a sense of history and awe. On the main level of the church you will find openings in the floor that expose a mosaic tiled floor dating from the fourth century. This is an original part of the church that was built by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. Be sure to look, but don’t step down!
Next you make your way under the main altar of the church to a cave. Yes, another cave! This is the cave where Christ was born. When most people think of the birthplace of Christ, I think they think of a barn or a stall. Nope. Jesus was born in a very small cave. Nowadays, the cave is cramped and very crowded, with pilgrims moving in and out constantly. As you make your way down the steps into the cave, it gets very hot and a bit smelly…sort of like when Jesus was born I suppose!
Once inside the cave, you get to see the very spot where Christ was born. It is inside a 14-point star. Everyone gets an opportunity to bend down and touch the spot and, if you’re lucky, to get a picture or two. Imagine how many people touch that spot every day, and how many times it has been touched over the centuries!
Right next to the Church of the Nativity is St. Catherine’s Catholic Church. If you have ever seen Midnight Mass from the Holy Land on TV, it was broadcast from this church. Inside St. Catherine’s is the Baby Jesus that they take out and put into the creche on Christmas. Here is that little Baby Jesus.
We left Bethlehem and made our way back to Jerusalem for our final stop of the the day, the Wailing Wall, also called the Western Wall. I knew this was going to be a highlight of the trip. The Wailing Wall is where people of faith have been coming to pray for thousands of years. The first five courses of stone date from the time of Jesus. People often write their prayers and put the pieces of paper into the crevices of the wall. Every week someone cleans out the papers and burns them.
My moment at the Wailing Wall was certainly one of the most moving moments of our pilgrimage. As I prayed at the wall, I want you to know that I was praying for you. Touching that wall really gives the feeling of a special connection to God. Thank you for praying for us on our journey, and know that I will continue to pray for you. Shalom!