You only have to mention Bethlehem and our minds are instantly filled with images. So many cards we have received over the years, so many carols we have sung, so many nativity plays we have seen, so many cribs we have visited. And though we know the cross and Calvary just as well, yet the childlike nature of the city of Jesus’ birth, as opposed to his death, holds a special place in our hearts. Begin to walk around the city and you find yourselves in Manger Square, of course, but also Star Street, Shepherds Street, Orient Star Street (don’t get the two confused) and Milk Grotto Street. It is all about Christmas.
I decided that after two weeks in Jerusalem a break would be good, just 24 hours that would give me another more in-depth experience, another place to seek the hidden and holy. So thanks to the generosity again of Albina Tours in Jerusalem and the Manger Square Hotel here in Bethlehem I have just over a day here. That is a lot longer than you normally get as a pilgrim. Normally you visit the Shepherds Fields in Beit Sahour, a village below Bethlehem which stands high on a hill, and then you make your way to the Church of the Holy Nativity and St Catherine’s which stands alongside it. But often there is little time to do much else.
Now, if you arrive in Bethlehem for the first time, you may be disappointed to see that the Church of the Nativity is covered with scaffolding, some outside but most of it inside, as much needed restoration takes place. It will be wonderful when it is completed, I’m sure, but at the moment it’s a building site. Pilgrims can’t enter by the Door of Humility, the door blocked to stop people riding in on horseback but which means that even I have to stoop to enter. You now have to go in via the courtyard in front of St Catherine’s. As I went through there was a long queue into the Church of the Nativity so I decided to go into St Catherine’s instead. As I did the clock struck 12 noon and that meant that I was just in time for the daily procession of the Franciscans. I joined the procession.
The route of the procession goes from the Latin church into the Orthodox and down what normally serve as the exit steps from the Grotto of the Nativity. Pilgrims in the procession carry candles and are singing as the descent is made. There are three stations in the grotto – at the Star of Bethlehem which is the place of the birth, the Chapel of the Manger and the Altar of the Adoration of the Magi. At each station we sang and prayed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Gloria. We sang Adeste fidelis (O come, all ye faithful) and each holy place was censed and honoured. We then left the grotto by the door at the back which leads through to the caves in which St Jerome lived. There we had a final station and received a blessing. It was a joy and so much better than the rushed and often prayer-less visits I have made in the past.
However, I had seen all of this before and was heading for somewhere which was new to me. I had heard that in the street I have mentioned already, Milk Grotto Street, there is (unsurprisingly) the Milk Grotto. The site has been important to Christians probably since the 4th but definitely since the 11th centuries. What it commemorates is the Holy Family finding a place of refuge as Herod began the slaughter of the innocents. Mary and Joseph stopped at this cave with the child Jesus on their way to Egypt. Here Mary fed her child and a drop of milk fell from her breast and the stone of the cave turned white. It’s a place similar to the wonderful chapel of Our Lady at Ma’loula in northern Syria. There Christian and Muslim women used to pray where the miraculous icon was kept, if they were wanting a child. Sadly, I doubt whether that is happening now. At the Milk Grotto , Muslim and Christian women come because they believe scrapings of the stone can help them raise their children to be healthy. People are now discouraged to remove stone but encouraged to pray.
The church is beautiful, you enter by steps into the cave which has an amazing tranquillity about it, as soothing as a mother feeding her child. But go behind the cave chapel and there is something which, for me was even more wonderful.
In 2006 a new church was opened next to the chapel and the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration took up residence. The visitor makes their way along a cool, undecorated corridor and then finds themselves at a glass screen through which they can see the Chapel of Perpetual Adoration. A lone nun is there, praying before the Blessed Sacrament which is exposed in the most amazing reredos which is really a giant monstrance. It is indescribably beautiful. I knelt there and the Latin from St John’s Gospel came to mind and became my prayer
‘Verbum caro factum est’ – ‘the Word was made flesh’ (John 1.14)
This was the real Bethlehem, the real reason to fall on my knees and worship. The crowds were not there, there was no star, but there was something more, Jesus Christ in his Eucharistic presence. I remained kneeling, transfixed. It was coming up to one o’clock. A side door opened. Another nun appeared. It was like the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace – and in a way it was, attending on the king, the child-king, the ever-present king who Magi travelled to this place to adore, who a vengeful and jealous king sought to destroy. The Universal King born where his ancestor David was born. They were attending on the king and so was I. The nuns changed places, the watch continued as it always does.
I made my way back towards Manger Square and saw a sign for the Coptic Orthodox Convent and Church. It’s the Holy Family Grotto. I rang the bell. A sister let me in and showed me the steps down into the cave in which the church is set. It was silent and cool and calm. Perhaps the Holy Family had passed this way, looking for hospitality, looking for safety. I went back out. The sister came forward and opened a tin of biscuits. ‘Please have one’ she said ‘from us.’ It was a wonderful sign of the open hospitality in the place where the signs ‘No vacancies’ hung and doors were slammed shut. If I find nothing else in Bethlehem, I have found Jesus and it is true, it is always Christmas in Bethlehem, for here the incarnation is lived and witnessed.
child of Bethlehem,
be born in us today.