Back to the Beginning

We return to where it all began… Bethlehem! In the land where God became man, we trace the story of both our past and present, in unity with our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

Morning prayer in a shepherd's cave
Morning prayer in a shepherd’s cave

‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ John 1:14

We are in Bethlehem, out of chronological order but excited to explore this famous place. Our first stop was the Shepherd’s Fields; a site in Bethlehem originally known as Boaz’s fields where the book of Ruth from the Old Testament is set. The whole landscape here is so full of history, and this city in particular has been such a feature of bible stories that it is both exciting and hard to finally put a landscape to the images in my head. Hard because it is not the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ that I picture in the songs and nativity stories of home, but exciting because it feels so much more real and tangible to be here.

The Shepherd’s Fields are a series of caves where tradition believes the shepherds would have been when the angels appeared to them announcing the birth of Christ (Luke 2: 8-20). In fact the caves do date back to the time of Christ and despite the more recent additions to make the caves into chapels there is a beautiful feeling of simplicity here. Our very knowledgeable guide, Ibrahim, explained to us that this cave is most like what the cave where Mary gave birth was actually like. Before leaving the Shepherd’s Fields, we had an opportunity to see in the chapel there, again by Barluzzi. The chapel is built to resemble a cave with no windows but a large glass domed roof which, when the sun shines in, resembles the light from the angels’ greeting. Here we sang ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ which sounded incredible with the acoustics of the church and, if I may say so, our amazing voices.

Angelic voices singing in the Chapel of the Angels
Angelic voices singing in the Chapel of the Angels

After the Shepherd’s Fields we went to Sunday Mass at the local parish church of Beit Sahour. Our Lady of Fatima and St Therese is a beautiful church with a scene behind the altar of the shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus – very fitting considering its location. We were warmly welcomed by the parish priest and marvelled at the joy of being able to participate in Mass, in this case in Arabic, as a very real reminder of the universality of the Catholic family. After Mass we had an opportunity to meet some of the parishioners which was a great opportunity to chat to them and, for some of them, to share their experiences of life here. I had an opportunity to chat to some of the girls of the parish about their interests and hobbies. Ranging for playing the piano to drawing they were full of joy and excited to see us! Some of the adults enjoyed hearing about what we had been up to and our thoughts on Bethlehem so far. They are clearly proud of their homeland but the current political situation makes life very hard for them. To reassure them that we are praying for them and for peace here just doesn’t feel like enough.

Celebrating Mass in Arabic!
Celebrating Mass in Arabic!
One big, happy, young, Catholic family!
One big, happy, young, Catholic family!

Whilst we celebrated Mass at 10am, the other side of the pilgrimage were in another Catholic church in Bethlehem, and Cardinal Nichols was celebrating Mass in Gaza with the local catholic community there. It’s a beautiful reminder of the power of the Eucharist to draw us together. On his return, the Cardinal explained how he had had a ‘touching day’. He explained how the situation in Gaza on the ground was more complicated than he had expected with such entrenched hostilities within the area. His two main thoughts throughout the day were: on seeing the effects of war, “there must be a better solution”; and, echoing Pope Francis, deep poverty entrenches social difficulties and unrest. He calls us to both pray and act.

The Cardinal talking about his experience in Gaza
The Cardinal talking about his experience in Gaza

After Mass we had an opportunity to do some shopping. We went to a shop run by Christians and is set up to mostly to benefit the local Christian families. So friends and family, don’t worry, we’ve got your presents!

We had a very eventful lunch in a restaurant aptly called Christmas Bells. Not only was the food very good (we have been spoilt by the quality and quantity of food so far!) but some of the group had the opportunity to dress up in some local gear. Unfortunately, they didn’t dance as the older group had done earlier!

Folks dressing up at the Christmas Bells restaurant
Folks dressing up at the Christmas Bells restaurant

After lunch we headed across the road to the Basilica of the Nativity. A somewhat unassuming exterior hides the oldest church in the Holy Land. I love the fact that the door is built very low so everyone other than children have to enter with a bow, to ‘make themselves smaller’ in order to pass through. It is known as the Door of Humility as a result. The church is currently undergoing renovation works on its roof so there is scaffolding up; however, it is still an impressive site. In one section you can see some of the uncovered 12th century flooring – beautiful and extensive mosaics. At the far end is the Greek Orthodox altar, adorned with lots of gold and incense. We descended the steps to the grotto, and there is a star on the floor which says in Latin ‘Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary’. The grotto itself is richly adored and it is hard to imagine it as the simple cave we saw this morning in the Shepherd’s Fields. However, the space does have a powerful tangibility to it, and I was reminded of the humility of God to be born in flesh and into such poverty. A reminder of how God does not conform to our understanding, and I had a renewed awe for Mary and Joseph’s trust in God’s plans at such a vulnerable stage in their lives. Here we prayed the third mystery of the rosary ‘The Nativity of the Lord’, and sang a verse of Silent Night.

"Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est"
“Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est”

The final stop at the basilica was the Catholic part; a beautiful church call St Catherine’s. We will be returning here tomorrow with the whole pilgrimage for a Mass with some local Christians, led by the Cardinal. A special event to look forward to!

After the basilica we headed to somewhere called the Milk Grotto, a chapel built on the site where the Holy Family is believed to have stayed after the birth of Jesus and before the flight to Egypt. It is the ‘house’ mentioned that the wise men visited in Matthew 2:11. It is a light and airy chapel where we prayed the fourth mystery of the rosary and prayed for ‘the family’. It was moving to spend time in a place where the Holy Family would have lived and to contemplate them doing normal life things like cooking and eating and cuddling the new-born baby Jesus; the broken nights of having a new-born as well the experience of a family adjusting to a new addition. To see the Holy Family in more than just the Christmas card picture was a powerful thought.

Praying the fourth Joyful Mystery in the Milk Grotto
Praying the fourth Joyful Mystery in the Milk Grotto

The final part of our day was a talk just before dinner from Peter Rand, of the charity Friends of the Holy Land. He explained the work of this charity, its aims and how it works. Set up in 2007, after the suggestion of then Archbishop of Birmingham, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Friends of the Holy Land has four aims; to raise awareness, to rally people to pray, to tangibly support through finance and expertise, and to encourage pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There are lots of issues facing the Christians here, and especially after meeting them personally today and again tomorrow there is this feeling that we not forget our family here.

Peter Rand talking to us about Friends of the Holy Land
Peter Rand talking to us about Friends of the Holy Land

Our day here has been taking us back to the mystery of the incarnation and the importance of something tangible. Christ became man so that we could put a face to God, so that we can be brought more into relationship with him. We recognise the importance of action and of presence here in this place.