The day began with a short walk from the hotel in Manger Square to the Basilica of the Nativity, in which the Grotto of the Nativity marks the birthplace of Jesus, venerated by Christians since the first century AD. The small cave contains a silver star (photograph left) marking the spot where Jesus was born and beside it is the Grotto of the Manger, marking the traditional site where Mary laid the newborn baby in a manger, close to the Altar of the Magi maintained by the Roman Catholic Church (photograph right). Parishioners had visited the grotto regularly over the previous days but today Mass was celebrated in the Chapel of St Jerome in the underground cave adjacent to the grotto, accessed from the Roman Catholic Church of St Catherine of Alexandria attached to the Basilica. The readings were those of Midnight Mass and singing the carols Adeste Fideles, Silent Night and Once in Royal David’s City, were of special significance in the birthplace of the Lord.
After Mass, the pilgrims gathered outside the Church of St Catherine to hear of its foundation; it is the Church where the Partiarch of Jerusalem celebrates Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve each year.
The pilgrimage continued in the Greek Orthodox section of the Basilica where recent excavations, still ongoing, have revealed stunning mosaic floors from the Church from the early 4th Century (photograph left with inset of floor). The walls are now being restored to reveal stunning mosaics and images of the ancient saints on the pillars.
After a brief break, the pilgrimage continued with a trip to the Shepherds’ Field, in Beit Sahur, the place where the angels appeared to the shepherds announcing the news of Jesus’s birth. Pilgrims gathered in the Chapel of the Shepherds’ Field which has three frescos depicting the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, their visit to the manger to see the Christ child, and their joyful return to the fields (see photograph right with inset images of the frescos). After a talk by Fr Mervyn, quoting a recent Christmas message of Pope Benedict, that we too should make haste in our journey to the Lord, pilgrims sang the Gloria, echoing the words of the angels inscribed in gold around the dome of the chapel. There, too, pilgrims sang While Shepherds watched their flocks by night with particular poignancy so close to the site of the appearance of the angels.
The group then descended to the Shepherds’ cave, where they would have guarded their valuable sheep by night, having separated them from their goats which were left outside. Fr Mervyn spoke to the group (photograph left) about the importance of the last judgment from Matthew 25, separating sheep from goats, and Jesus’s message, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink …. In truth I tell you insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” The pilgrims sang The First Nowell and departed from the cave.
After lunch and a visit to a Christian Cooperative selling olive wood products, the group rested before hearing a moving talk from Laila of The Friends of the Holy Land (photograph right). Laila described the plight of the Palestinian Christians, walled in to their small townships – even Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, is surrounded by a high wall with few crossing points, each guarded by Israeli soldiers. The Palestinians are unable to leave the walled city without special specific permits which are difficult to obtain. The group heard about the gradual erosion of Palestinian lands and the restrictions upon everyone – even young people are unable to go to school outside the city and many have never been able to visit Jerusalem, just a few miles away. Patrons of the ecumenical Friends of the Holy Land include Cardinal Vincent Nicholls, Archbishop Bernard Longley, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon and Archbishop Justin Welby. The group felt urged to support the Friends by raising awareness of the plight of the Palestinians on their return to the UK, encouraging prayer on their behalf, seeking to ways to support the group financially, and encouraging others to visit the Holy Land to meet local Christians.
Photographs below: Outside St Catherine's Church (left) and emerging from the Shepherds' cave: