As a Catholic child, many times I listened wide-eyed to stories and scriptures about the birth of Jesus Christ. I learned how Joseph and Mary, who was heavy with child, traveled long through the dark desert to Bethlehem - Mary on a donkey, no less - to participate in a census. I have pictured this many times in my mind. A tired couple, a pregnant woman in labor, no room in any of the inns, the fear they felt, and having to sleep in a stable. Giving birth in those dirty conditions, no doctors or hospitals, laying their baby in a manger, animals crowding close to keep the little family warm. Shepherds traveling from afar, following a bright star, to visit the new baby king. Gifts were presented. Angels sang. So lovely.
Whether you believe this story or not, it is sweet and somewhat magical, and I still read it every Christmas. It brings back warm memories of nativity pageants and Midnight Mass.
So here is the church that was built on the site where, according to tradition, the stable was in which Christ was born. It's called the Church of the Holy Nativity. It was totally pouring by the time we reached it, disembarked from our tour bus, and walked to the church. Our tour guide cut his lecture short and we rushed inside with a throng of other tourists. Please forgive the borrowed picture because I couldn't get one myself, but I did give credit to the source.
The Church of the Holy Nativity
I did catch a quick picture of the Cross of the Holy Land (also called the Jerusalem cross - but we weren't in Jerusalem). It symbolizes the five wounds of Jesus on the cross. I hear this cross is lit at night and is very pretty. We left before it got dark so we only saw it in the daylight.
The Cross of the Holy Land
There are different sections of the church that now stands where the stable was. They are all owned by different religious groups. Apparently there is a lot of contention and strife between the different groups. Never mind that - I visited on a peaceful day. Pictured below is part of the original floor of the church which was built in 6 AD.
Original floor in the Church of the Holy Nativity
We wandered throughout the church and eventually made our way to a set of narrow wooden stairs that led to a grotto. There we saw the Altar of the Nativity - according to tradition, this is where Mary gave birth to Jesus, so this was built in its honor. The main attraction is the twelve-point star. People touch it and pray. I touched it and said a swift, silent prayer. I did not take this picture (it was very crowded and dim down there and mine didn't turn out), so I borrowed it. Credit given below.
The Star of David
Opposite the Star is another altar, which is dedicated to the Wise Men who came bearing gifts to baby Jesus. Here I am touching it. Remember how it was pouring rain? That's why my hair looks so funky. And they asked us to cover our heads in the church, so I brought this scarf along for that purpose.
The alter dedicated to the Wise Men
Here I am at the back of the room. The walls are covered with many beautiful paintings and tapestries of the life of Christ. It was very Catholic art, which I find very beautiful.
The group of people behind me seemed to be from Germany, judging from their conversations. At one point, someone started singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night). Soon the entire room was singing, so I quietly joined in (singing in English). It reverberated against the walls of the grotto and it gave me the chills. Once again, I thought of the many Midnight Masses I attended with my family when I was younger. Very nice memories of my parents singing in the choir and my brother sitting next to me in the front pew.
In the Grotto
After the Grotto, we moved on to the part of the church owned by the Roman Catholics. It was so bright, clean, and pretty. A mass was in process, but we didn't participate. (As a non-practicing Catholic, I couldn't have taken communion anyway.)
The Catholic part of the church
After leaving the church, we drove through Bethlehem and visited a few gift stores. Here's a picture of modern-day Bethlehem. Not exactly what I had pictured.
Here are the hills that, according to tradition, the Wise Men traversed to reach the stable and manger.
I will be honest here: other than the Church of the Holy Nativity, I did not like Bethlehem very much. It was very dirty and covered with graffiti. Beggars were everywhere and they were very aggressive in asking us for money. One even followed us onto our tour bus and pestered one very American-looking member of our tour (she sported a blond pony tail, college sweatshirt, white jeans, and flip flops). I was very uncomfortable while in the city.
And then there was THE WALL.
The wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Ah, ignorant American that I am, I didn't realize that Bethlehem is not in Israel; it is in Palestine. I was also ignorant of the wall separating the two countries. I did know about all of the strife in that area, but I guess I was picturing the border between the US and Mexico, where you simply drive across and wave at the people in the little booth at the side of the road. No no no, Palestine and Israel have no such friendly arrangement - in fact, our Jewish tour guide left us on the Israel side of the fence and had us meet another tour guide on the Palestine side. He told us very frankly that Jews who go into Palestine are killed. We had to go through multiple fences and walk through gun scanners and show our purses. Oh, and there were tanks and army guys with machine guns on the Israel side who kept their eyes on us while we crossed.
Me in front of THE WALL
In spite of this, I'm glad I went to Bethlehem to see the place I heard of many times throughout my life. I bought a sweet, little nativity set made of olive wood for Abby to have when she is an adult. And I have my pictures to show this magical place. I will always remember this.