Our last full day! This morning started off with a visit to the church of St Catherine, situated right next to the Basilica of the Nativity. It is a beautiful, light and airy church with an eye-capturing, star-shaped stained glass above the sanctuary. To the right when you enter is a staircase that leads down to an underground grotto. This is believed to be the series of caves attached to the cave in which Christ was born, and which were separated by Saint Helena around 330 AD. The grotto today is a series of simple but beautiful chapels: The Chapel of the Innocents to commemorate the children Herod killed in his attempt to kill the new born baby Jesus; the St Joseph chapel; and a double cave dedicated to St Jerome.
St Jerome is remembered here because he is the man who translated the Bible from the Hebrew into the Latin ‘Vulgate’. How appropriate that the Word of God was translated in the same place where the Word was made flesh – the reality of God’s Word becoming something tangible starting from the same spot. One of the famous sayings attributed to St Jerome is ‘Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ’. Fr John called us to promise ourselves to read Matthew, Mark and Luke from now on and we all left with a profound feeling of the reality of God.
Mass was held upstairs in the main church and was led by Monsignor Harry Turner. Our hymns were Christmas carols and, although a bit early, were appropriate due to the location. I am excited to see how this trip to the Holy Lands this year will alter and deepen my experience of the preparation in Advent and the celebration of the Christmas season. Fr John in his homily talked about the history of the landscape we were in. How rich it is in the stories we grew up knowing: form Abraham to Samuel and David and all the way through to Mary and Joseph. He reminded us of the passage from Isaiah when God reminds us, ‘My ways are not your ways’, and we are challenged to wonder where we can follow. Can we turn our thoughts and ways to God’s ways, the Humble King on a donkey? Again, for me, it comes back to that original question that God seems to ask throughout history from Eve to Mary to my daily life; do you trust me?
The Milk Grotto
We then headed just up the road to the Milk Grotto. According to tradition, Mary, Joseph and the new baby Jesus would have stayed around Bethlehem until Joseph received the dream to go to Egypt. During that time, they would not have stayed in the cave with the animals but found a small place to live. The Milk Grotto is believed to be that house, the house where the Magi came to see them. Tradition has it that while nursing Jesus, some of Mary’s breast milk fell to the floor and the stone turned white. The grotto itself is a spacious and airy room and we were given a talk by one of the Franciscan friars about some of the miracles associated with the place. It is believed that scrapings from the stones in the grotto increases a woman’s fertility and upstairs in the little shop are hundreds of photos and letters from overjoyed parents who have prayed to our Lady, the Novena of the Grotto, and have been rewarded with a child. The Friar did however stress that it is faith more than action that receives such results, and it is the prayer that is most important. It was a lovely space to visit and to pray for all the mothers; it was a place with a special atmosphere.
One of the aims of this pilgrimage is to allow us to experience life here, to be ‘welcomed’ by the local families and to show them by our presence that they are not forgotten. So our next stop was to split into two groups for local excursions: one to the Holy Family Orphanage and one to St Martha’s elderly person’s day home.
Holy Family: We slightly misjudged the timings, so all the children were having ‘nap-time’ while we were there, but on reflection that might be a good thing for everyone. The Holy Family Orphanage takes children from newborn up until about five or six when they are moved onto another institution. Life is complicated and difficult with very little support from the government and Sharia Law does not recognise adoption. It was difficult to experience.
St Martha’s: The group was greeted by about 15 elderly ladies who were sitting. They smiled gently to us but their tongue was Arabic and ours was not, so conversation was not that easy. The tour operator, Laila explained about St Martha’s and the work of the Friends of the Holy Land that has supported then. Similar to the Orphanage, they have to manage with no social security, with a diminishing Christian population (20% has fallen to 1%) and with the sting of loneliness and isolation that the ladies feel. Their time is spent socializing, praying, entertainment and activities. We then had coffee and biscuits, at which point the music was switched on and for the next 30 minutes everyone was on their feet dancing!!! It was amazing – with no conversation we left with a terrific bond and real sense of love for one another. There were kisses goodbye and sadly we had to leave them.
It is good for us as pilgrims to see where the money from the charity associated with this pilgrimage, ‘Friends of the Holy Land’, goes – how it is used and who it helps.
The Dead Sea
After our ventures we gathered together for some lunch before the optional trip to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is a fascinating place being the lowest land point on the planet at around 400 meters below sea level. As a result of the evaporation process the sea has an extremely high salt content of around 30% in comparison to the 4% in normal seawater. It means that you float in the water. And it seems very odd on your skin, more of a kind of oil. The mud however is supposed to be very good for your skin! A very fascinating experience, and it took up most of our afternoon.
In the evening we had a cake brought out for us from Laila and her team. And then we had a short party (cut off by some people who don’t appreciate good, but quite loud, singing!!). Tomorrow we leave to go home. What a pilgrimage it has been. It is hard at times to remember all that we have done – there has been so much! It has been a real privilege to be here, and to journey though the Holy Lands.