PLACES TO VISIT IN BETHLEHEM
The grotto has been a site of veneration since the 4th century, the first structure being built over it around 385 A.D. An irregular grotto hollowed out of soft white rock, women who are trying to conceive especially frequent this site. According to tradition, while Mary and Joseph were fleeing Herod’s soldiers on their way to Egypt, they stopped in this cave while Mary nursed the baby Jesus. A drop of Mary’s milk fell upon the stone, and it turned white. Rows of framed letters and baby pictures sent from around the world to the Milk Grotto testify to the effectiveness of the “milk powder” and prayer.
The Franciscans erected a church around the Milk Grotto in 1872. In 2007 a modern chapel dedicated to the Mother of God was opened.
In the cave that serves as a passage between the Grottos of St. Joseph and St. Jerome we come across two altars: one dedicated to the saints Paula and Eustochium, the other to saints Jerome and Eusebius. Three tombs are located in the wall to the right of the first altar, positioned like Roman tombs in the countryside around Lazio.
Following along the course of the Daily Procession, and leaving the Grotto of the Nativity through an underground passageway built by the Franciscans to ensure a direct access to the Holy Place, one comes to the Grotto of St. Joseph. Now restored in a modern style by the Franciscan artist Alberto Farina, this would have been the nearest cave to the Place of the Nativity. As one exits from the underground passageway, the Altar of St. Joseph is on the left.
The traditional place of the angel’s visit is the town of Beit Sahur. Originally known as the Village of the Shepherds, it is now an eastern suburb of Bethlehem. Caves where shepherds “kept watch over their flock” still abound in the area east of Bethlehem. Here, the Gospel of Luke tells us, an angel announced the birth of Jesus. The angel’s good news was not given to the noble or pious, but to workers with a low reputation. Jewish literature ranked “shepherd” as among the most despised occupations of the time — but Christ was to identify himself with this occupation when he called himself “the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).
The West Bank city of Bethlehem, about 5.6 miles south of Jerusalem, is celebrated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Here, Mary gave birth in a cave used for animals. The local shepherds came to worship the baby, and here the Three Wise Men from the east came to pay homage and present their gifts. Here too, 1000 years before Christ, Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, Israel’s second king. The prophet Samuel anointed David as king. The cave where the birth took place and the manger stood can now be visited underneath the huge Basilica of the Nativity. This is the oldest complete church in the Christian world.
“O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie; Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by”
In the Grotto of the Nativity, under the central altar, is a silver star commemorating the “Nativity,” the birth of Christ. Christian tradition and art in all forms is inextricably linked with the star. Indeed, St. Matthew’s Gospel, recalling the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, says, “We have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him… And lo, the star went before them, until it came over the place where the Child was.”