In October 2014, I visited Bethlehem with my wife Judy and three other fellow pilgrims, among many sites in the Holy Land. I thought it would be appropriate for the season to express what that experience was like for us. During our pilgrimage, I wrote a sort of diary during our nights in our hotel. Most of the following thoughts are from those accounts and my resulting book, Footsteps That Echo Forever.
We came into Bethlehem and set out to walk to the Church of the Nativity, just around the corner. I immediately recognized it. It has a small doorway. Upon going through it, the spiritual power of the holy place was very evident. Pilgrims walk down about five steps to a grotto-type area.
It's a cave, made of dark rock (possibly basalt, which is abundant in Israel). Because of the crowds, we first went to where the manger was (it is now in a church in Rome). The “spiritual electricity” (for lack of a better term) was palpable. I felt overwhelmed; moved to the very core of my being, and weak; like my legs wouldn't be able to hold me up, or like I would faint at any time. I had just a moment to glance at a little grotto of the three wise men, across from the manger.
Part of the feeling is, I think, due to the special nature of Christmas in Christian culture. The story is so familiar. It's a magic, wondrous day and night anywhere; but to be where it actually happened produces a phenomenal sensation that is virtually indescribable, apart from the bodily sensations (weak, feeling like one is about to faint).
We then moved along a few feet to where the baby Jesus was born: commemorated by a silver star on the floor. It was a more familiar site; I had seen photos of it many times. This is where God came to earth! I kissed the star. Then before I knew it (due to the press of people from all nations and tongues), I was led out and up the stairs. I felt dazed and awe-struck again.
These experiences alone would be more than sufficient for a lifetime. But more amazing wonders awaited us. We passed by another grotto of the holy innocents. It could hardly be grasped what happened to them. A few feet further, we came to the holy place where the angel visited Joseph to warn him that Jesus was in danger.
This is all part of the same cave where the Nativity took place. It gave a real sense of authenticity to this wondrous holy area that has been continuously visited by pilgrims for almost 2,000 years. St. Jerome also lived and worked in the same cave, translating the Vulgate version of the Bible.
We decided to sing a Christmas carol, and O come all ye faithful was chosen. Another group a little below where we were, heard us and joined in, singing in German. It was a hugely moving moment and one that none of us will ever forget.
We then drove approximately a mile to the field where the angel announced the good tidings to the shepherds. This has a lovely church with fine murals on three of the walls. In the courtyard area behind it, our guide led us to the cave where the shepherds stayed. He showed us where the nativity occurred: a mile away and quite a bit higher in the hills of Bethlehem.
Once again, we observe a holy event taking place on a high hill. It's always been this way. Moses went up to Mount Sinai to talk to God and receive the tablets for the Ten Commandments. Elijah contended with the false prophets on Mount Carmel. Jesus went up to Mount Tabor to be transfigured. He ascended from the Mount of Olives.
Now that I have seen how high Bethlehem is, in driving to it, and have seen the birthplace in relation to the shepherds in the field, I grasp the “spiritual topography” of it. And it is a beautiful motif.
Later that night, fellow pilgrim Margie Prox Sindelar expressed her experience in this blessed town:
When Mary was about to give birth, she was in the hustle and bustle of the moment. But she was probably in prayer, with all that going on around her. I wanted to stay and adore our Lord, but I couldn't. But this shows that we long for the Lord, just as it was when He was walking the earth.
My wife Judy added her “testimony” as well:
When I walked into the Church courtyard, the tears started and I realized where I was. When we went into the doorway, I pictured people coming to worship Jesus on the first Christmas. When we got in I felt like an electric shock went through me. My whole body was shaking and I felt like my legs couldn't support me. I didn't want to talk. I just wanted to be in the presence of God and the holy family. I really lost it and cried when we were at the star where Jesus was born. A baby cried at the same time, and that was so precious to me.
There was also a grotto with statues of the nativity in the shepherd's cave in the field, and I felt like I was a spectator and witnessing the actual scene. I just wanted to bow down and worship, but we had to go. It seemed to all come alive.
I had visited the most holy and powerful, extraordinary place I'd ever been in my life.
I would highly recommend a visit the Holy Land, including Bethlehem, for any Christian, if it is at all possible to do so. The Bible and the Catholic life remarkably and tangibly “come alive” when one visits the holy places where all these momentous events that are recorded in Holy Scripture occurred.