During our trip to the holy land, as our Jewish guide rested on the Sabbath, we took in a tour to Bethlehem. This little town, the birthplace of Jesus, is only a few miles from Jerusalem.
We were quite shocked to find a massive concrete wall with barbed wire on top lining the border between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Our guide George, who spoke several languages, including clear and fluent English, told us that back in the year 2000, some terrorists were coming into Jerusalem and attacking people. So, a wall was erected and the Arabs living in Bethlehem stay on their side and the Jews stay on theirs. It has cut down on the violence but as we passed through the security area, it was sad to think it had to be put up in the first place.
A large percentage of the very small Christian population (many are Arab Christians) are concentrated in Bethlehem. I’m not sure if George was a Christian or not but he was well versed in our faith, quoting the bible with accuracy, and we found it pleasing to hear someone who spoke of Jesus and the holy family with excitement and knowledge of the faith.
The Milk Grotto
The bus took us along Manger Avenue and up a steep hill to our first stop, the Milk Grotto. As the holy family was escaping the town to get away from Herod’s soldiers who were ordered to kill all the baby boys, they stopped at this grotto so Mary could feed Jesus. Of course now it’s a church that is built in and above the cave. It was quite peaceful and simple there. It is said that a drop of Mary’s milk fell upon the stone and it turned white. The white chalky substance is now collected and sold—mostly to women who are trying to conceive or who are pregnant. Our guide very wisely said that it’s not really about the act of mixing the substance with water to get some physical benefit but rather about faith.
Shepard’s Field (Ruth’s Field)
Down the narrow curvy road we went and on to the Shepard’s Field. Another church with gorgeous mosaic paintings surrounded by an excavated area and park marked the spot where the Shepards of bible times hung out. These Shepards were blessed with the good news of Jesus’ birth, having heard the announcement from heavenly angels.
The Shepard’s Field is also called Ruth’s Field. Ruth’s story is one of my favorites. Ruth and her mother-in-law were poor widows and they relied on the kindness of the local farmers who obeyed God’s law regarding setting aside corners of their fields for the poor to harvest. Ruth worked hard to glean the grain left behind after the harvest and caught the eye of Boaz, a good man who protected her and eventually became her husband. Boaz and Ruth are Jesus’ direct ancestors.
Church of the Nativity
Our next stop was the Church of the Nativity. This church was the only Christian holy site not destroyed in 614 A.D. by the invading Persians. Evidently they saw a mosaic on the church facade depicting the Magi dressed in Persian attire and thought it was a shout out to their prophet.
Lots of crowds headed toward this seemingly non-descript church off the narrow street on top of one of the hills of Bethlehem. We entered single-file through a low-framed door and made our way over to an area that covered a cave. As with some of the churches in Jerusalem, the orthodox sects that had a presence within this church decorated the area with paintings, tarps, depictions of Mary, incense burners, and relics among other items.
We waited in line to descend steps into a small area where there was an altar above the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The walls were covered with thick tarp and there was another altar where a couple of priests were offering communion to a few visitors. We took our turn and bent down to touch the rock under the altar. I lingered for a few minutes wanting to breathe in the Holy Spirit and to try to meditate about this holy place and what happened there 2,000 years ago. But alas, with a tour group, we were moved along to walk through the church. Below one area was a cave where the holy family lived for a time and where Saint Jerome spent time meditating and translating the bible into Latin (the first time that was done).
The Obligatory Gift Shop
Our tour ended at Johnny’s gift shop where we found an assortment of goodies—many carvings of the nativity, crosses, and more from a special wood found locally. Not much wood is found in Israel, so this was somewhat unique.
The afternoon was spent strolling through the Old City shopping before we started our journey east.
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”