65 - Filipinos from the parish

Fittingly, our first visit to Bethlehem was on Christmas night!  After our Midnight Mass in Stella Maris, we set off on the 100-mile journey with two busloads of Filipinos.  Usually, the Filipinos attend Mass in our nearby parish but they come to Stella Maris for the Midnight Mass (Photo 65).  Many of the Arab Christians in the parish would also have liked to come but, sadly, being Israeli, they are not allowed into Palestinian Bethlehem (neither are the  Palestinians allowed out).

 

66 - Bethlehem Indian Mass

 

While on paper it looked like an exciting and appropriate thing to do, to set out at that hour for Bethlehem, it backfired somewhat, in the sense that, arriving there at 5.30 a.m., a relatively quiet time, there were Masses going on at the Manger Grotto, with the result that it was not open to the public until nearly 8 o’clock.  We couldn’t even have breakfast, with every place closed.  In fact, there were very few people around, apart from a sizeable Indian contingent who were having Mass alongside the main church in the Syrian Catholic rite.  There was plenty of singing, but of the Indian variety.  Everything else was totally strange (Photo 66).

67 - Church of the Nativity on Christmas morning

We finally began to queue for entrance to the manger about 7.30am, and people seemed to come out of the woodwork for that.  Then, just as the door to the entrance opened, a crowd of the Indians jumped the queue, and there was an almighty crush – all very unseemly.  You have to go down narrow steps to get to the Manger Grotto, and it was slow progress.  And then, when you got there, you got about two seconds at the manger, and you were whisked away by two Franciscans!  Not a prayerful experience at all, I have to say.

68 - Ancient Mosiac Floor

The Church of the Nativity, which is built over the manger is very ancient and has many beautiful features (Photo 67, 68).  It is remarkable in that it was never destroyed.  The original basilica was built by St Helena in the fourth century, and some features of it remain, including the exquisite mosaic flooring and the decoration on the walls.  When the Persians attacked it, they saw the icons of the Magi, and left it be.  During the Crusades, both Latin and Byzantine Churches worked in harmony here, unlike elsewhere.  Major restoration work is now in progress (Photo 69).

69 - Church of the Nativity

In 2002, 50 armed Palestinian militants locked themselves into the church with 200 monks.  Israelis, out of respect, did not storm the church, though a few snipers were killed.  Eventually, the militants were allowed to go free to Gaza, Spain and Italy.

70 - Chapel of St Jerome

Underneath the church, there are a number of caves/crypts.  Tradition has it that St Jerome lived here as a hermit while he was translating the Bible into the Vulgate.  It was the abode of several hermits back in the 4th century (Photo 70).

71 - The hills around Bethlehem

After our visit to the Manger, we had a wonderful celebration of the Eucharist in the Shepherds’ Field, a couple of miles outside the city (Photo 71). It was absolutely beautiful out there on the hills, and whether we had the right field or not, there was a wonderful atmosphere, and the morning was beautiful.  There were several Masses going on at the same time: some of them in the open air, others in caves and lovely churches all around.  Our Mass was effectively in the open air, though there was a covering over our little space (Photo 72).

72 - Mass in Shepherds field

It was real shepherd country overlooking the city (in spite of the absence of sheep and even grass!).

73 - Shepherds field ruins of ancient byzantine church

At a later stage, in the context of our study of David and Solomon, we were back in Bethlehem, where David was born.  It was easy to imagine the young David out on the hills minding the sheep, before the call of God came through Samuel.  Once again we had Mass in the Shepherds’ Field, this time in a lovely little cave chapel.  The remains of a Christian monastery have been found on this hill, and excavation is continuing (Photo 73).

74 - Manger grotto

This is also the Field of Ruth, where she encountered her future husband, Boaz, in the cornfields.  Hence, the link with David.  This time, back in the city, we managed to get quality time at the Grotto Manger; we could sit around and pray (Photo 74).

 

75 Chapel of Davids anointing

We also paid a visit to the cave in which Samuel is reputed to have anointed David.  It is under the church of the Carmel in Bethlehem, which was founded by Blessed Mary of Jesus Crucified (Photo 75).  Nearby we were also able to view Rachel’s Tomb.  Rachel, you will recall, died giving birth to Benjamin, and Jacob had her “buried on the road to Ephrath, at Bethlehem, where he raised a monument on her grave, and this is the monument of the tomb of Rachel which is still there today (Gen. 35, 19-20).  The tomb has an armed guard, as it is literally within an Israeli fortress in Palestinian territory.

 

76 - Modern Bethlehem

As you leave Bethlehem, you are likely to endure long delays going through the border area, back into Israel. Bethlehem is six miles south of Jerusalem (Photo 76), and you get a wonderful view of the Holy City from various angles, for Bethlehem is even higher up than Jerusalem, being 2,500 feet above sea level. The population of present-day Bethlehem is around 25,000.  Israel gave it back to the Palestinian authority in 1995 under the Oslo Peace accord.  While it has a Muslim majority, it also has one of the largest Palestinian Christian communities.  It is a central part of the West Bank. Sadly, the Israelis have built a giant wall running round it – 15 metres high.  In fact, this wall stretches for 450 kilometres over most of the Palestinian territory (Photo 77)

77 - Walls surrounding Bethlehem

The Franciscans are the custodians of all the holy places, by a papal decree going back to 1342; they do admirable work.  They have a huge investment of personnel in the holy places, up to 300 friars, covering Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, parts of Egypt, as well as Cyprus and Rhodes - 74 churches and shrines altogether. But the actual administration of the holy places in divided between Catholics, Armenians and Greek Orthodox, and they don’t always work harmoniously together!