The Location of the Manger
Today was an absolutely amazing day. We started with Mass in the cave where Jesus was born. As I mentioned earlier, the original cave is preserved under the sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity. I was the lector for Mass today and there I was, standing at the very place where Jesus was born, proclaiming the words of the prophet Isaiah foretelling the birth of the messiah. You just can’t describe these sorts of events in words. It is amazing how real the incarnation seems when you’re right here in Bethlehem. Jesus was a real person who entered this world as a little baby. Somehow being here makes that historical truth come alive like it never has before. The Christmas story is not just a pious tale here; it’s so real. You can reach out and touch it. You can kneel down and kiss the ground in the middle of the star marking the very spot where Jesus was born. You can sit and contemplate the location of the manger. You can walk the road traveled by Mary and Joseph. You can go visit the field where the shepherds heard the good news. I’ve only been here for 3 days and already the Holy Land is helping to make the Word of God in the Sacred Scriptures become incarnate in me. Praise God!
The Altar Next to the Manger
I think that if all we did today was to have Mass at the manger that would have been more than enough. However, just the morning contained another amazing experience. I went to visit the church called The Milk Grotto. This church is built over another cave that is believed to be the place where Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus. The story behind the name is that while Mary was nursing the baby Jesus, some drops of milk fell to the ground. The stone in this cave is all very uniquely white and this legend is given to explain it. A wonderful Franciscan priest served as our tour guide. He indicated that whether you believe the legend or not he has had his faith strengthened by the presence of the Holy Family at this location, particularly in regard to the many miracles related to the family that have taken place. You see at some point this white powdery stone began being used by couples who were infertile to help them conceive a child. The priest showed us their office that is covered with pictures of families with new babies who had previously been infertile. They’ve got doctors’ notes from women who were medically sterile who conceived. Basically the husband and wife mix some of the white powder from the grotto with water and drink it and pray the 3rd joyful mystery of the Rosary and God is able to work a miracle because of their faith. The other neat thing about this church is that they are building a beautiful new upper church all with aide from the annual collection taken up for the Holy Land. That second collection for the Holy Land that comes around each year is a lot more meaningful to me now that I see exactly how much good it can do. I had never heard of this Milk Grotto church before, but there is definitely something special going on there. I will surely go back there to invoke the intercession of the Holy Family.
Milk Grotto Church and Miracle Testemonies
In the afternoon I experienced what may have been the highlight of the trip so far. As strange as this may sound after hearing everything I’ve mentioned so far, this highlight came not at a major holy shrine, but at Bethlehem University. This is a Catholic University run by the Christian Brothers. However, as the population in Bethlehem is now a Muslim majority, the student population is about 60% Muslim and 40% Christian. Our visit included presentations by the faculty and then time to talk and have lunch with the students. We have been getting talks each day about the political and religious situation. It’s all very fascinating, but also difficult to understand. I have to admit that I didn’t even really know who the Palestinians were before this week. You think you know from hearing things on TV, but the reality of the situation here is really quite different. For the past few days I’ve been walking the streets here and seeing all kinds of people and not getting to talk to any of them very much. Today we got to talk to university students our own age and hear their story. These are just absolutely amazing people. Most of the people I talked with today were Muslims, but also some Christians. This is a land filled with tension and deep division, but when you walk into the main square of Bethlehem University you see young Muslims and Christians just hanging out and having fun in a way that looked to me much like any college campus in the US. I can’t help but think that this is how peace must come about. It’s a lot harder to speak negatively about “them” when “them” happens to include your friend and classmate that you see every day. I had some great conversation with the students today that I shall not soon forget. I was so happy to be able to meet these wonderful people and to ask them questions and get to know them and their history. The things going on at Bethlehem University are a great sign of hope for the future.
Students at Bethlehem University
Despite the hope that I saw today, I also learned a lot about the sad political situation. Again, I have to admit that I never really realized that all of what we would now call the Holy Land, part of which is Israel, has all been the country/territory of Palestine since shortly after the time of Christ with the Diaspora of the Jews. For almost 2000 years the Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, had lived here in peace with the remaining Jews. However, in 1948 the UN basically invented the state of Israel and Jews began moving into the region and kicking the Palestinians out of their homes and taking their land. Most of you probably know this, but I never really realized that Bethlehem is not in Israel…it’s in the West Bank, which is some of the land that the Palestinians were allowed to keep. However, the Israelis have continued to take more and more of the Palestinian land, basically just because they have the stronger military and can take what they want. This all became real to me today when we went up on the roof of one of the University buildings to see a panoramic view of the surrounding area. One of the first things that became very obvious was this big wall that the Israelis are building. Nothing represents division and hatred better than a wall and this was the sad site from my viewpoint today. As we looked out and saw Jerusalem not far off in the distance, one young Palestinian woman I was talking to explained how she is not allowed to go to Jerusalem. There are checkpoints all along this wall and it is illegal for Palestinians to enter Israeli territory. She said that if a car approached a checkpoint with a Palestinian in the car the driver would be fined $10,000, arrested, and his license revoked. The vice chancellor of the university here told us of one of their students who died because he was not allowed to cross the border to get medical attention he had previously been receiving in Jerusalem. Here’s another thing that surprised me…there are no Jews in Bethlehem. It’s illegal for them to cross the border going the other way. The Israelis will not allow them to enter the West Bank. From the roof we could also see the “settlements” where Israelis are building cities in Palestinian territory. When you hear about “settlements” on the news I pictured some little tent cities or something, but they’re actually building big buildings right in the face of the Palestinians while pushing their walls further and further forward into the West Bank. This whole situation is just a lot different than you would imagine from the American media. I pray that the friendships and understanding being formed here at Bethlehem University will spread and at some point we will learn the ridiculousness of building walls between people, both physical and figurative. I know I learned a lot today and am thankful for my new Palestinian friends, both Muslim and Christian.
The Wall Separating West Bank from Israel
Oh, I almost forgot…we’re also having class here. After coming back from the University we had a session of our class on the Gospel of Luke. Again, it’s the strangest thing to read about the places and events of Jesus’ birth and be able to know that you touched the place just a few hours earlier. We are also having a class on the spirituality of pilgrimage. When we go to Jerusalem we will switch classes and study the Acts of the Apostles and Church Architecture History.
As if all this wasn’t enough for today, we finished up by going to the seminary for the Latin Rite diocese of Jerusalem. We had evening prayer together that including the seminarians here chanting in Arabic while we interspersed our English. We were all able to pray the Pater Noster together and pray for each other. Their English is very good as is the case with most people we meet. We then shared a wonderful meal and fellowship together. These are such great men who have a real sense of mission to serve the very small Christian population that remains here in the Holy Land. The rector told us that there are about 300,000 Christians in the Holy Land and about 70,000 of those are Catholic.
What a day this has been. I think one of the most important things I found today was just how much, now matter where you go, people aren’t all that different. No place could have seemed more foreign to me than the Middle East before I came here. Already that has started to change as the people who seemed so strange from so far away are actually very friendly and wonderful people who I look forward to getting to know more and more over the coming months. God has given so many graces today that I just can’t put them all in words, but I hope you enjoyed a little bit of my reflections. I won’t probably be able to write so much in the future, but this is the first time I’ve had to really write anything substantial. Let me know if there are any questions or things you’d like to know about or see pictures of. You are also of course in my prayers.