Pilgrimage Sites in the Holy Land

HOLY LAND

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Shepherds' Field

Stations of the Crèche 
– Thomas A. Stanley, S.M.

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There is a tradition that the "sorrowful devotion" (way of the cross) began almost immediately after Christ's death and resurrection when Jesus' mother, along with a group of disciples, regularly retraced her Son's journey to Calvary stopping prayerfully at places of special significance. Centuries later returning Crusaders introduced this devotion to Europe. Along the side walls of churches fourteen crosses were placed along with plaques bearing art images of these special sites (stations). Thus the faithful could visit in spirit the Jerusalem sites and meditate prayerfully on the events.

I would like to suggest a new devotion for the twelve days of Christmas (Dec 25 to Jan. 6). It consists of a prayerful visit in spirit to geographical sites that had special significance during the birth and infancy of Christ. Here are the sites and events; you have to furnish the prayerful meditations.

I. Nazareth
II. Ain Karim
III. Bethlehem
IV. Beit Sahour
V. Jerusalem
VI. Petra
VII. Qubbet Rahil
VIII. Matarieh
IX. Dair-al-Muharraq
X. Sepphoris
XI. Nazareth
XII. Rome

I. Nazareth

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" ...you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.... "Luke 1:31.

It is appropriate to begin our stations at the Basilica of the Annunciation, a majestic building of white limestone in Nazareth, built over the traditional site where Gabriel told Mary she was to bear the Child Jesus. After the resurrection of Christ, the relatives of the Lord continued to live in Nazareth carefully preserving memories of Jesus and the genealogies of the family.
The main source of Mary's Well. It is under the crypt of the church.

They ruled over Nazareth's community of Judeo-Christians and erected a Church-Synagogue on the site of the Annunciation. About the year 427 a Byzantine church replaced it and it in turn was replaced by a Crusader church in 1239 only to be destroyed in 1263. In 1620 the site was acquired by the Franciscans who erected a modest edifice there. In 1955 this church was completely demolished to open the way for a complete examination of the site and the eventual building of the present Basilica. The latter is really two superimposed churches, a lower church or crypt which preserves the grotto remnant of Mary's home and the remains of the Byzantine and Crusader churches and an upper church which serves as the parish church for the large local population of Palestinian Catholics. The upper church has an oculus, a large opening in the floor, through which you can see the grotto below. In its pavement there are emblems of the Councils of the Church that had Marian significance and a huge mosaic on the wall represents Vatican II's doctrine of the Church. On the other walls there are artistic works each given by a different country and each representing the principal figure of Mary venerated in that country. The Basilica has a great cupola rising above the roof. Some say it is shaped like an inverted lily (a Marian flower). Others see it as a tent, a view that fits well with the literal translation of verse 14 of the first chapter of John's gospel ["and he set up his tent among us"].

Some distance north of the Basilica is "the Fountain." Legend says that it was here, while Mary was drawing water, Gabriel first greeted her vocally, but seeing no one she returned to her home where the angel again appeared, this time visibly.

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II. Ain Karim

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"...and why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? "Luke 1:43.

Although Ain Karim is presently within the limits of the greatly expanded modern city of Jerusalem, in Jesus' day it was was five miles northwest of Jerusalem. Ain Karim means "Fountain in the Vineyard," a well-merited name in view of both the abundant water and rich vineyards there. The town stretches on hillsides and the bottom of a small valley. Its houses are shaded by trees and even today all the surroundings are green with cypresses and pine trees. It was there that Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. They had two dwellings. One, their usual residence, was in the valley. A second, high on one of the nearby hillsides, was a summer place where they could escape the heat and humidity. Elizabeth, fearing that people in the village will censure her because she had intercourse with her old husband and wishing to meditate in solitude, to savor the deep joy of maternity, to praise God who at last has thought of her, moved to the country house on the hill overhanging the village, quiet in the middle of woods. It is late autumn; there are no flowers, but the leaves, red, brown, yellow and multi-hued, keep her joyful company. It was to this place that Mary came after leaving Nazareth and it was there that Mary stayed for three months until the birth of John the Baptist. Mary is the ark of the new covenant and her three-month visit echoes the three months the ark of the ancient covenant had remained in the house of Obed-Edom during its journey from Abu Gosh to Jerusalem in David's time.

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III. Bethlehem
"...she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths. " Luke 2:7

Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem as refugees of a sort. At the present time there are hundreds of poor refugees there. They live in half-cave-half house dwellings for it is still the custom as it was in Jesus' day to find a cave ( of which there are many in this area) and erect in front of it another room. The cave is warmer in winter and cooler in summer and where the cave is large it can also be used for keeping animals at night. It was in such a home of a relative that Joseph sought shelter. His hosts had already given over their "guest area" (which is often translated as "the inn") to others so Joseph and Mary were put up in the cave area with the animals. It was there that Jesus was born. The manger mentioned in the Gospel was most likely a storage place for fodder rather than a feeding place. It was the best and driest place to put the newborn baby.

Like Nazareth, Bethlehem had from the first days of Christianity a group of Judeo-Christians who transmitted from father to son the events which the oldest among them had personally witnessed and they venerated in a special way the grotto in which Christ was born and which they called "the cave of light." The Emperor Hadrian tried to obliterate the memory by placing there a shrine honoring Adonis. He only insured the memory. In 326 Constantine erected a church there. After it was damaged in 529 during a revolt, the Emperor Justinian pulled it down and built in its place the present church, the oldest one in the Holy Land.

The Grotto is reached by descending a flight of stone steps. It is a rectangular room about thirty-five feet long and ten feet wide. There is a brass star affixed to the stone floor in the alcove at the east end. It is inscribed (in Latin) "Here, of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born." The walls of the Grotto are covered with large sheets of asbestos, once brightly painted with scenes from Jesus' life, but now blackened by the soot on many burning candles. Behind these sheets, scholars have identified a small chimney which perhaps provided ventilation for the fire that warned the Holy Family.

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IV. Beit Sahour

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The Shepherd's Field in Beit Sahur, east of Bethlem
"...there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." Luke 2:8

About a mile and a half east of Bethlehem is the village of Beit Sahour (House of the Vigilant) which lies in the middle of the so-called 'Boaz' fields. On the glorious night of the Nativity the shepherds kept watch in one of those fields.

Already in St. Helen's day there was a church here dedicated to the angels who had announced Christ's birth to the shepherds. The site honored by Catholics has a natural cave nestled in a lower protected position. Its mouth opens eastward--away from the prevailing west wind and toward the warming rays of the morning sun. The cave's mouth also opens into a small, natural glen, where animals could be gathered during times of danger. The shepherds were probably gathered in this cave when the angel appeared to them. The Franciscans have converted the cave into a very inspiring chapel. Its natural stone ceiling is covered with black soot evidence of long use as a refuge. A few short steps before the mouth of the cave are the ruins of a Byzantine church and monastery, which archeologists date to the fourth century. On the knoll above the cave, a new and inviting tent like chapel has been built with funds Canada helped to raise in 1954. It is circular in shape with an altar set in the middle. The large dome covering the building is studded with round glass blocks which catch the sunlight and splash a rainbow of colors into the chapel. Around the base of the dome is written (in Latin): "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will."

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V. Jerusalem
"...they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.... "Luke 2:22

Forty days after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary walked with the Child the seven miles to Jerusalem and the Temple. They were going there to "buy back" Jesus. The night before Christ's ancestors left Egypt under the leadership of Moses, every first-born male in that land, both human and animal, was taken by the angel of death except in those Hebrew families that had smeared their doorposts with the blood of the lamb they had killed and eaten as the Lord prescribed. From that time on, every first-born Hebrew male belonged to the Lord and had to be "bought back" by means of a sacrifice appropriate to the family's economic status.

The Temple the Holy Family entered was the "second temple" (the one built in 516 B.C. by the Jews returning from the Babylonian exile) but greatly enhanced by Herod. He had started this refurbishing twenty years before and it would be another sixty-four years to its completion. So the Temple to which Joseph and Mary brought Jesus was one under construction, especially the porticos which rimmed the thirty-acre esplanade in the center of which was the Court of Israel and the Holy of Holies. At the time the Holy Family made arrangements for their sacrifice, the Portico of Solomon along the eastern edge of the esplanade was already in place and complete. This would become the favorite "preaching place" of the adult Jesus and it was the site of the boy Jesus' encounter with the Temple teachers. In all probability it was also the site of his encounter with Simeon and Anna as described in Luke's gospel. In 70 A.D. the Romans completely destroyed the Temple grounds and buildings. Over the years the Arabs have restored the esplanade which today is graced by two buildings, the Crusader church of St. Mary (now a mosque) and the beautiful Dome of the Rock which stands where once stood the Holy of Holies.

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VI. Petra

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" behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem." Matt 2:1

To the Hebrews of Jesus' day, "The East" was the territory on the other side of the Jordan and the Dead Sea. It was inhabited and controlled by an extraordinarily skilled tribe of shepherds called the Nabataeans. They originated in northwest Arabia and over a period of six-hundred years from the fifth century B.C. spread their dominion as far north as Damascus. They developed their own style of architecture, a unique and delicate pottery and, vital to the success of their strongholds and agriculture, a sophisticated system of water engineering. Their capital was Petra, a city hewn out of rock within a ring of almost impenetrable mountains in the Jordanian desert. Even today it can be reached only on foot or on horseback.

Strategically situated at the cross roads of ancient trade routes, Petra thronged with merchants bringing goods from the Mediterranean, Egypt, Damascus and Arabia. With Petra as an almost impenetrable base, the Nabataeans controlled the caravan routes, extorting taxes from those using them, grew wealthy and prospered. In the centuries immediately before and after the birth of Christ, the Nabataeans were at the height of their power.

Night travel in the desert was more comfortable and the Nabataeans were good at it, using the stars and planets for navigation. A group of them evidently noted an extraordinary night sky event (star) and interpreted it to mean the birth of an extraordinary leader. They followed it north from Petra and then west to Jericho and Jerusalem. They sensed they were near to their goal and asked Herod for information. Directed to Bethlehem they proceeded there and found the Child Jesus. They gifted him with the coin of their realm--gold and expensive resins. It was a peculiarity of the Nabataens that, after visiting a religious shrine, they would return by a different route to manifest a personal change for the better. Warned about Herod, they skipped a return to Jerusalem and proceeded south to Hebron and the Aqaba.

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VII. Qubbet Rahil

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"A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation...." Matt 2:18

Rachel's Tomb-Interior

On the northern outskirts of the town of Bethlehem is a small building with a sparkling white dome. It is the Qubbet Rahil, the tomb of Rachel, the traditional burial place of the beloved wife of the Patriarch Jacob. The biblical narrative (Gen. 35:19-48) tells us that the family of Jacob was traveling in the mountain area of Canaan when Rachel died in childbirth, the first woman in the Bible mentioned as having done so. Jacob buried her there on the road leading into Bethlehem.

The sages of Israel asked: "Why did Jacob bury Rachel on the way to Bethlehem? " Their answer: Jacob foresaw that the exiled children of Israel would pass that way, so he buried her there that she might ask mercy for them. In his gospel account Matthew has a different idea. He knows that the Bethlehem area is where the tribe of Benjamin located in the Holy Land and that, as a consequence, the children killed by Herod in his frustration over that failure of the Magi to inform him about the new born king were the progeny of Benjamin and the descendants of Rachel. And so, as the massacre of the Innocents takes place, Rachel from her tomb bewails the fate of "her children."

After they expelled the Crusaders from the Holy Land, the Moslems allowed only people of their faith to enter the tomb. But in 1841, Sir Moses Montefiore obtained the keys for the Jews. Today the Tomb is visited by people of all faiths, especially by women who seek help from the gentle and beloved mother. The place of the tomb is marked by a large stone overlaid with velvet coverings. According to popular belief, a red thread measured against the tombstone is a good luck charm and a piece of such thread is often tied around wrists of brides and newborn babies.

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VIII. Matarieh
"Rise. take the child and his mother; and flee to Egypt...." Matt. 2:13

Jesus escaped the massacre perpetrated by Herod because, just after the visitors from "the East" had left Bethlehem, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and directed him to immediately take the child and his mother and escape into Egypt. Thus warned, the Holy Family traveled south to Hebron and then to Ashkelon. Then they followed the trade route Via Maris along the Mediterranean coast into Egypt passing through the land of Goshen in the Nile delta, the area where Jesus' ancestors lived for several hundred years until Moses led them out into the Sinai desert. Eventually they reached the Nile River traveling up it to Matarieh, where they stayed for some time.

Several legends pertain to this site. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew relates, "The divine travelers entered Matarieh [present-day Heliopolis]. As they had not there any friend whose hospitality they might claim, they entered the temple called the Capital of Egypt. In it were 365 idols to whom homage was offered up every day. And it happened that when the blessed Mary with her Child entered the temple, all the idols fell down upon their faces and were broken to pieces." A legend with a more likely basis is found in the Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus (in Arabic) which states that at Matarieh the Lord Jesus produced a spring in which Our Lady Mary washed his clothes. The spring remains and water is still brought up from its depths by means of a water wheel turned by oxen. For centuries, Christians in Egypt have believed these waters to be holy and medicinal. Even Moslems have always venerated this spring as being endowed with marvelous healing power. A tradition so ancient, uninterrupted and general hardly leaves room to doubt that the divine power must have manifested itself in some way at this spring.

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IX. Dair-al-Muharraq
"...go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead." Matt. 2:20

Like displaced persons in any age or in any clime, the Holy Family had to move fairly often. There are numerous places in Egypt along the Nile River that claim their temporary presence and relate some legend concerning them. Their final stop was in Upper Egypt at Dair al-Muharraq. It was there that the angel of the Lord again appeared to Joseph in a dream telling him to take the child and his mother and return to the land of Israel because those who were seeking the Lord's life were dead.

The monks of Dair al-Muharraq believe that the Church of the Blessed Virgin located here was built immediately after St. Mark's arrival in Egypt, that is, some time around 60 AD. Jesus had now spent three and a half years of his childhood among pyramids and sphynx and, humanly speaking, this cultural exposure must have had some effect on him. Like Moses, who was raised as an Egyptian, Jesus returned to his homeland an Egyptian Jew. This has implications I have yet to see explored by Scripture scholars and commentators.

The trip back home was initially the same as the trip into Egypt but in reverse --down the Nile and through the delta to the Via Maris which they followed to Ashkelon. Here, instead of going east to Hebron, they continued on the Via Maris north through the Meggido pass to the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, located just four miles northwest of Nazareth.

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X. Sepphoris

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"...being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee." Matt 2:22

Sepphoris was a Greco-Roman city, sometimes called "the ornament of Galilee." It was a large urban area located astride two major ancient roads, the Via Maris running north and south and the Acra-Tiberias road running east and west. It was an hour's walk from Nazareth.

In 4 B.C. the death of Herod the Great resulted in a series of riots in the city. As a consequence, the Romans completely destroyed Sepphoris. But when Herod's son, Herod Antipas, was designated ruler of Galilee, he chose the city for his capital and began an extensive rebuilding program. The markets of Sepphoris supplied many items needed in Nazareth but unavailable there; and it provided Nazareans with the opportunity to sell their agricultural products and other saleable goods. The rebuilding program meant the formation of labor pools of men from nearby villages. This meant the opportunity for Jesus' father and relatives to earn extra income. Being "builders" (the probable meaning of "carpenter" at that time), they could market in Sepphoris the artifacts they had made in Nazareth and they could hire out their skills so necessary in an expanding urban area. All this necessitated frequent trips back and forth to Sepphoris for Jesus and his father and provided many learning opportunities for Jesus. His experiences there became the background for his "urban parables" and gave him knowledge of the Empire's lingua franca: Greek and Latin. There is a tradition that Joachim was a citizen of Sepphoris. If so, that meant frequent visits by Jesus to his grandparents and occasions to attend its Synagogue noted for its preservation of Hebrew language and culture.

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XI. Nazareth
"...he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them...." Luke 2:51

Now back from Egypt, it is only natural to think that Jesus was raised in the house of his adopted father. Here again we have the Judeo-Christians, many of them Jesus' relatives, to thank for identifying the traditional site of Joseph's home. Like the house of Mary, it was a cave-house type structure and was situated a short distance east of Mary's home. St. Joseph's Church stands there now. Archeological excavations have demonstrated that it stands on the site of an older Crusader church, and this, in turn, was built upon Byzantine ruins.

Ancient cisterns have been discovered in the bedrock, along with a small pool paved with mosaics. This site has been venerated as the place of Joseph's home and work-shop for centuries.

The majestic Basilica of the Annunciation stresses the grandeur of the mystery of the Incarnation. St. Joseph's church, on the contrary, by the modesty of its dimensions and architecture as well as by its semidarkness which makes it favorable to meditation, evokes better the hidden life of Jesus of Nazareth. That life was hidden but it certainly was not peaceful. Procurators abused their position of power and mercilessly oppressed the people, constantly demanding unfairly high taxes. With good reason, Galilee was a hotbed of rebellion and Roman military units marched back and forth through the villages chasing would be rebels. Tension was the prevailing mood in Nazareth.

Nazareth in Jesus' day had a population of about two-hundred souls and was known as an agricultural village. That meant that Joseph, even though he was an artisan, also had to be a part-time farmer. The village was nestled on the side of steep hills, so the farming had to be limited to vineyards, orchards and especially terrace gardening. This was part of Jesus' life too.

Located amid bustling crowds of merchants and shoppers in the market district just north of St. Joseph's Church is a simple little building--the Synagogue Church. There is general agreement that this building stands on the site occupied by Nazareth's synagogue when Jesus lived there. This would be the place he attended synagogue activities, learning scripture and Hebrew, learning to read and write.

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XII. Rome
"...on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased." Luke 2:14

Rome is our final station. Here we have a choice: we could visit the Church of St. Mary Major. There just below the main altar is a small altar. Under it is the wooden crib Jesus occupied in Bethlehem. It is plated over with silver. St. Jerome and the early pilgrims to Bethlehem speak of it. It was brought to Rome in the twelfth century. One of the Masses I celebrated during the week after my ordination was celebrated at this altar.

Or better, we could go to the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli which sits on the summit of the Capitoline Hill, the very center of ancient Rome. This church was built in 1348 to thank the Virgin Mary for her help in averting the threat of the plague. According to tradition, the church stands on the site where the Emperor Augustus saw the apparition of a woman with a child, who said, pointing to the altar where she was sitting: Ecce ara primogeniti Dei (Behold the altar of the Firstborn of God)--a prophecy of the coming of our Lord. In the sacristy, the venerated wooden statue of the Infant Jesus known as the Bambino dell' Aracoeli is housed. In December the statue is brought into the main body of the church as part of a creche and a small pulpit of sorts is placed before it. At almost any hour of the day you will find a group of children lined up there waiting their turn to step up into the little pulpit to recite an appropriate poem, sing a Christmas song, give a little homily, deliver a thank-you message, etc. On the counter in the sacristy where the Bambino is kept during the year are piles of letters written to the Bambino.

These descriptions may clash with the images on your religious Christmas cards. Whether or not that is so, my hope is that the tangible nature of these presentations will prompt new (and prayerful) insights into the birth and infancy events of Christ as presented in the Gospels.

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The above was taken from the book Stations of the Crèche written by Thomas A. Stanly, S.M., Bonded Books, 2004

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