Christmas was quickly approaching on the calendar, and we thought it would be better to visit Bethlehem before the big rush of tourists on that holy day. We woke up, prepared for the outing, and caught a local bus to the “little town of Bethlehem.” After about 20 minutes, we arrived.
It was apparent when the bus left Jerusalem and entered Bethlehem in the Palestinian region. We were struck by the angry graffiti quickly spray-painted on the retaining walls of the highway off-ramp as we descended into the city. So far, this didn’t seem to be a happy place. After passing dirty grey buildings of run-down neighborhoods, we soon arrived at the King Solomon Bazaar of Quality Souvenir and gifts shop. We got off the bus and began to walk. As we passed King Solomon’s, we saw tables full of crucifixes, manger scenes, and all sorts of Christian souvenirs, all arranged by size and ornamentation. Something for everyone!
We continued to Manger Mall, where the souvenirs were just as plentiful and gaudy. The long tables were full of numerous crucifixes, all carefully arranged by size. I thought of a comedian who once said, “When Jesus comes back do you think this is what he wants to see everywhere? The image of himself dying on the cross?” One little item did catch our eye, however. A small ornament carved from wood mixes the symbols of the Jewish Star of David, the Muslim Crescent and Star, and the Christian Cross. We bought it.
Church of the Nativity
We continued our way to the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Mary gave birth to Jesus, which is one of the oldest working churches today. The ornate church features two sets of stairs leading down to the Grotto of the Nativity, where a fourteen-point silver star is under the altar on a cracked marble floor.
Some consider that the meaning of the star’s 14 points is due to Jesus’ Genealogy. There are three sets of 14 generations: the first 14 from Abraham to David, then 14 from David to the Babylonian captivity, and 14 more to Jesus Christ. Another opinion is that it represents 14 stations of Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion.
The star is surrounded by candles and 15 silver lamps representing the Christian communities: Greek Orthodox, Catholics, and Armenian Apostolic. The silver star marks the exact spot of Jesus’ birth. An inscription on the star states, Hic de Virgin Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est – meaning “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.”
We walked throughout the church, taking in all the extraordinary decor of ornate gold filigree and statuettes. Beautiful, brilliant colors of the mosaics adorned the walls with seven angels and other scenes depicting the birth of Jesus. As more people arrived, we decided to look outside, where we found the bell tower. “Let’s climb to the top,” Donna said. So, we began our climb.
Part of the way up the bell tower, Donna began to be shaken, but she insisted on continuing to the top. As we climbed higher, she burst into tears. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” I asked her. She insisted that we continue upward. It got to the point that she was crawling, no, clawing her way up. I asked her, “What are you feeling?”
“I don’t know, but it’s very emotional. Like it’s a memory from a past life or something!” She said.
When we reached the top, we looked down at the church. This is when we saw piles of skulls and bones stacked in a side alcove under the church.
Donna began to calm down and regain composure. We could see far into the distance from the top of the bell tower. We looked out across the city and into the desert, where we could see King Herod’s fortress in the distance. Coming down the steps, Donna was still shaken but getting better as we neared the ground. We walked over to the alcove and were surprised at how many skulls and bones there were. This, we found out is the Cave of the Holy Innocents, containing the bones and skulls of the small children massacred by Herod the Great in an effort to eliminate the one Child he thought was to replace him as the “King of the Jews”.
How Many Innocents?
As the story goes, Herod had told the three wise men to return and report to him once they found the “Christ child,” but they didn’t because they knew he wanted to kill it. Then Herod, when he saw that the wise men had tricked him, was in a furious rage, and he sent his soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under.
The Greek liturgy asserts 14,000 Holy Innocents, while an early Syrian list of saints asserts 64,000. Coptic sources assert 144,000. Yet, the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1907–12, recognizing that Bethlehem was too small a town to provide such numbers, reduced the victims to six and twenty children, with a dozen or so more in the surrounding areas. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive lot of bones!
We then walked to the Milk Grotto. According to tradition, while Mary and Joseph fled 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.
After all this investigating Bethlehem, we were pretty tired and decided to call it a day. We caught the bus back to Edna’s house in Jerusalem. When we arrived, Edna had prepared a small meal. The other roomer, a young lady with her son, was there also. Everyone was interested in our adventure as we discussed our day in Bethlehem. The young lady said she and her son would go there for the Christmas celebration. We figured we had already seen what we needed to see there.
Next: Christmas in Jerusalem