As we journeyed to Bethlehem this morning, we first stopped at the "Shepherd's Field." The Shepherd's Field Chapel was designed by Antonio Barluzzi and decorated with images of the annunciation, shepherds with sheep, the childhood of Jesus. Our guide described the history of the past and present buildings here. We sang "O Come, All Ye Faithful" in the chapel. It may sound strange to sing a Christmas Carol in October, but it was so wonderful to sing those words in this location!
Then we headed down to the caves that dated back 2,000 years. These may be the actual caves where the shepherds in the scriptures received the message from the angels announcing the Lord's birth. We listened to the Scripture passage of the angels appearing to the shepherds and bring them the good news. Then we entered the cave which had a very low ceiling. We sang "Silent Night," in the cave, and reflected on what happened here. The shepherds may have been huddled with their sheep in the cave or all around it. We walked around ruins of an ancient church, and then boarded our busses for the short trip to Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is a large bustling city today, located in an area called the West Bank. Unfortunately, this area is controlled by the Israeli army, and we needed to go through a checkpoint. It was so sad to see that the entire city was surrounded by a tall wall, and the Palestinians who live there live like they are in prison.
We arrived at the Casa Nova, Franciscan House, and walked through their building to get to St. Joseph's Church, where we celebrated Mass in the Chapel of St. Catharine. After the Mass we were invited to join the Franciscan Friars for their daily procession into the Grotto of the Nativity. We each held a thin tapered candle and followed them out of the chapel and into the Grotto. After their short service honoring the birth of Christ, we returned upstairs for lunch in the Casa Nova Franciscan House. We returned to the grotto again after lunch.
This time we entered the church through the tiny door on the outside of the church. This door was originally much larger, but much of it was bricked in to make it impossible for an invader on a horse or camel to attack. The church of the Nativity is the oldest existing original church in the world. The church was originally commissioned in 327 by Constantine the Great and his mother Helena on the site that was traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus.
This second visit to the grotto allowed each pilgrim the opportunity to venerate the 14-point silver star on the floor beneath the altar. Around it are the words: Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary). After some free time to shop, we returned to our hotel for dinner. After dinner the pilgrims were invited to attend a penance service in the hotel chapel.
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