The Shepherds’ Field in Bethlehem. Photo by Father Greg Friedman, OFM

Bethlehem: A Little Town with a Big Reach

Experiencing what it means to know the newborn Christ

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“Christmas in Bethlehem — what a wonderful opportunity!” That was the reaction from friends and family when I traveled as a pilgrim guide to the Holy Land in December 2019. The statement was bittersweet — and the reality was complicated.

Certainly, it was a unique spiritual experience to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the city of Jesus’ birth. It was a dream come true after preaching Christmas homilies about Bethlehem for over 40 years.

My first visit there, some years earlier, as a pilgrim, forever changed my preaching. But when I later became a pilgrim guide, I found my spirituality tempered by practical responsibilities: worries about the weather (cold and rainy); the safety of my pilgrims (especially those with difficulties in walking); the press of crowds (including hours spent in line waiting to enter the Grotto of the Nativity); and the reality that — before and after — I had to cover all the other aspects of Jesus’ life, including, on the very next day, the Via Dolorosa and visits to Calvary and the tomb.

A guide learns to rely on the reactions of the pilgrims. They mirror the wonder of discovery and the work of the Holy Spirit. I have learned to look into their eyes and listen to their questions, and thereby find my personal path to the spiritual.

Layered in Complexity

A pilgrim travels to a holy place and recalls its sacred story. Perhaps no other place combines place and story better than Bethlehem, “where Christ is born of Mary.” But like so many places in the Holy Land, Bethlehem confronts the pilgrim with layers of complexity. First-time visitors are surprised to find it’s only about a 30-minute bus ride from the center of Jerusalem. But the trip is complicated by the 120-mile-long separation barrier, or wall, which divides the occupied West Bank from Israel. All traffic must pass through an Israeli military checkpoint.

Beyond the wall, Bethlehem itself is under the limited control of the Palestinian Authority, whose police patrol the city. Foreign visitors enter and return with reasonable ease, but Palestinian citizens need permits to enter Israel for work or study. This means restrictions and long delays as they seek to access a workplace or classroom. This political reality recalls for Christmas pilgrims the journey of Mary and Joseph in Luke’s Nativity story — that is, with no place to stay and subject to Roman authority.

Bethlehem is home to both Catholic (“Latin”) Christians and Orthodox Christians, as well as other Arab-speaking citizens, including Muslims. Christmas Eve in Bethlehem sets in motion a round of civil and liturgical events celebrated according to ancient traditions, governed by the agreement among Christian communities in the Holy Land known as the status quo. The season begins with “Latin” Christmas Eve on Dec. 24 and concludes in mid-January with the Christmas and Epiphany celebrations of Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians.

Three Christian communities — Greek Orthodox; Latin-rite (Roman) Catholics, represented by the Franciscans; and Armenian Orthodox — share the ancient Basilica of the Nativity and mark Christ’s birth. Christians venerated this site from the early days of the Faith. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, built a church in 333. St. Jerome and a small Christian community lived here.

That first church was destroyed in 529. In 531, Emperor Justinian restored and enlarged the first structure. It was decorated with a mosaic of the Magi, dressed as Persian holy men — a sight that stopped Persian invaders in 614 from destroying the shrine.

It is this same structure — recently restored — that pilgrims visit. The restoration brought new luster to the Byzantine-style mosaics dating from the Crusader era, depicting Gospel scenes and early Church councils. The main sanctuary is used by Greek and Armenian Christians. Below the main floor is the grotto, or cave, marking Jesus’ birthplace. Latin-rite Catholics, represented by the friars, share its use.

Latin-rite Activities

Latin-rite Catholics begin Christmas on the afternoon of Dec. 24 with the arrival of the Latin Patriarch (Archbishop of Jerusalem). He is escorted by the city’s mayor and other officials into the city. At the basilica, he is greeted by the Holy Land Franciscans, other clergy and residents of the city, as well as over 30 groups of Christian Scouts, with marching bands. The friars lead him into the church through its small door — visitors literally bow at the waist to pass through, a reminder that the church was threatened in ancient times by plundering forces on horseback!

The procession passes into the adjoining Franciscan parish Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria for the celebration of the first vespers of Christmas; the friars make a brief visit (during the Magnificat) into the Church of the Nativity and then down a series of steps into the grotto where Jesus was born.

Richly adorned with marble, tapestries and hanging lamps, this space nevertheless evokes the humility of Jesus’ birth. Pilgrims descend through a narrow doorway and a steep set of worn marble steps. Daily, thousands wait in line to enter and touch or kiss the silver star marking the site of Christ’s birth. Nearby, another small sunken area with an altar and the straw marks the place where Mary laid the infant in the manger. Most pilgrims (unless they have the privilege of celebrating the Eucharist) can only linger a few minutes due to the press of the crowds.

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The Milk Grotto

Milk Grotto
A view of the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem. Photo by Father Greg Friedman, OFM

Father Greg Friedman shares a legend of the Milk Grotto, a site associated with Jesus’ birth.

The Milk Grotto, located about a 10-minute walk from Manger Square and the Basilica of the Nativity, is a devotional stop for those pilgrims who have the time (a rarity during the Christmas visit).

It recalls a legend that Mary, while nursing the Infant Jesus, spilled some milk — turning the stones in the cave white. While not grounded in history, this beautiful shrine offers a place of silence away from the bustle of Manger Square — and another place to reflect on the mystery of the Incarnation.

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‘Christ Was Born of Mary …’

Later on Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass is celebrated by the Latin Patriarch, currently Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa of Jerusalem, in St. Catherine’s Church. In pre-COVID times, this Mass (attendance by ticket only) drew nearly 1,500 attendees; overflow crowds follow the Mass on video screens in nearby halls and Manger Square. There, a large Christmas tree is set up near a stage. Choral groups from different parts of the world entertain through Christmas Eve and the next day.

Also, present in the congregation at Midnight Mass is the head of the Palestinian Authority and the Mayor of Bethlehem, among other dignitaries. At the end of the Mass, the patriarch processes into the Church of the Nativity and places a statue of the Infant Jesus in the Grotto of the Nativity.

When the ends, the status quo permits the Franciscans to begin a series of Masses every half-hour in the grotto till daybreak. Young Franciscan seminarians from the Franciscan theological school in Jerusalem serve through the night as cantors, acolytes, masters of ceremonies and guides for pilgrims.

‘Shepherds in the Fields’

The Franciscan shrine called the Shepherds’ Field, commemorating the appearance of the angel to shepherds, is in Beit Sahour, about a 20-minute drive from Manger Square. While history cannot tell us the exact location of the Gospel event — itself shaped by Luke’s theological needs — archaeological excavations have uncovered evidence of early monastic life, dating to the fourth to sixth centuries.

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‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’

The beloved carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written in 1868 by Phillip Brooks after a visit to Bethlehem. In 1866, Brooks spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. Stirred with emotion from the visit, two years later, he wrote the hymn for his Sunday school in Philadelphia. — “One Hundred and One Hymn Stories,” by Carl F. Price

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The friars welcome Christmas pilgrims who cannot be accommodated elsewhere. On Christmas Eve, from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., pilgrim groups — like the one I led in 2019 — can have Mass with their priest guide at one of many altars. The night air echoes familiar Christmas carols — sung in diverse languages, echoing from altars located around the shrine.

On our Christmas pilgrimage in 2019, we delayed our visit to the Basilica of the Nativity to Christmas day itself, due to the demands of our schedule. Our group had a festive Christmas meal in the Franciscan hotel nearby and had time to walk through Manger Square before we positioned ourselves for the long wait to make our visit to the Grotto of the Nativity.

What a Pilgrim-Preacher Carries Home

As noted, my Christmas homilies have been forever affected by my visits to Bethlehem. What have I carried home — along with olive-wood Nativity figures and hundreds of photos?

As I have witnessed the plight of Palestinian Christians and heard their stories, my Christmas homilies are now set in that reality, played out daily in and around Bethlehem. The daily lives of the people of Bethlehem — among them my friends in souvenir shops and hotels — help me to connect the story of Mary and Joseph to the story of refugees, immigrants and homeless people not far from where I live today.

Place of Jesus_ Birth
The place of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Photo by Father Greg Friedman, OFM

The act of bending low to enter the Basilica of the Nativity, and then descending precariously into the grotto below, is a physical reminder of the humility proclaimed by Paul to the Philippians in describing the Incarnation.

Like every Christmas homilist, I must wrestle annually with the infancy narratives’ blend of tradition, the sprinkling of history and the rich theology of the Gospel authors. “On the ground” in Bethlehem, I field pilgrims’ questions and try to articulate for them, as Matthew and Luke — and in a different way, John — did in their Gospel message. The process has enriched my preaching back home.

The press of crowds and the diverse sights and sounds — even, occasionally, chaos — inside the ancient church brings home to me the many ways Christianity has been incorporated into a diversity of cultures and faith expressions. Their prayers and rituals express the Incarnation in a way one finds very present in Bethlehem. I find myself encountering the ever-new manifestation of our ancient faith. And, I’ve had to learn patience in accepting the sometimes very human ways people express their need to touch the sacred stones and capture their visit in videos and selfies.

With each new pilgrim group, I have the opportunity to experience again what it means to come to know Christ, born in Bethlehem. That rediscovery is what I struggle to preach about each Christmas, after all. My challenge — as it is for all who proclaim Jesus as Lord — is to allow the Spirit to transform us into pilgrims as we celebrate his birth.

FATHER GREG FRIEDMAN, OFM, is a friar of Our Lady of Guadalupe Province in the southwestern United States. He is author of a number of books and articles, previously served as editor of The Holy Land Review, and has guided pilgrims in the Holy Land and Italy. His weekly Sunday reflections can be found on the U.S. Bishops’ website, www.usccb.org. This article was developed from a piece previously published in St. Anthony Messenger.

 
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