Saturday 5th July 2014
Late this morning I caught a bus to Bethlehem. It involved crossing into the Palestinian administered territories. I had been advised that another bus only went as far as the checkpoint but this bus went to Bethlehem. I had presumed that it would bring me to the church, but it stopped at an unfamiliar spot. Taxi drivers were pressuring for a fare, but I walked! I ending up going through the centre of Bethlehem. I was amazed at the vitality and life! There were many people walking in the street. Street stalls were set up on one side and people were hawking their wares. And even though the pedestrians seemed to take up most of the street, cars were also wending their way through them!
I followed the bazar/suq/street right up and found myself in Manger Square, which was familiar.
We had visited as an Ecce Homo group before but had not been able to go to the grotto as Mass was taking place. This time it was vacant, so I was able to enter. As I have come to expect, births and burials take place in caves, so it involved going down some steps to the crypt beneath the church. There was quite an open space, about three metres wide and ten metres long.
The grotto is said to be the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus.
The actual (!?) spot of Jesus’ birth is marked by a silver star (not unlike the silver plate marking the spot of the crucifix in the Holy Sepulchre, or the silver plate marking the spot of the Annunciation in Nazareth!). I heard a guide claiming that there was a direct relation between the star above that guided the wise men and came to a stop over Bethlehem and the star in cave below!
Initially, I had the place to myself, but after a few minutes, what seemed like several busload of pilgrims came in, including voluble guides. From the dress of the priests among them I guessed they were Orthodox Christians and were speaking what seemed to be a Northern European language but I wasn’t sure. They were a constant flow of devotion for what seemed ages. The pilgrim custom is to kneel, prostrate face-down to the ground and kiss the star. I also observed this ritual.
A couple of metres to the front right of the birth grotto is another ‘cave’. Pilgrims climb down another few steps to enter into this cavern. This was claimed to be the manger in which the baby Jesus was laid after he was born.
After a long time the pilgrim flow ebbed and I had the place to myself again for a few moments before I climbed back up to the church above and out into the sunshine.
The taxi drivers were persistent in wanting to take me to Hebron or the Shepherd’s field, but I had other plans.
For more on the Church of the Nativity see my previous post. The following websites provided detailed information and photos (certainly much better photos of the Basilica than I could take as the building is being renovated and is swathed in scaffolding):
Shalom, Peace, Salaam!!!