Many people around the world think of Israel and the West Bank as places of turmoil and violence, but I see them as lands of miracles. As a Christian on Easter Sunday this year, I found myself experiencing two timeless places where the greatest miracles of my religion occurred. I began the day in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the tomb where my faith says Jesus Christ was resurrected to save mankind. But later in the day, I visited the West Bank to tour the Palestinian church where the Messiah was miraculously born to the Virgin Mary.
I have traveled to some remarkable holy sites in the world during the last few years such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. However, visiting Bethlehem was a very spiritual journey for me because it is one of the most important spots in Christianity. My journey into the West Bank took me first to another one of the holiest places: Qasr-el-Yahud, “Castle of the Jews,” which is the baptism site of Jesus by John the Baptist. For the Jewish people it was the location where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and also where the Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven.
After my bus cruised by Jericho, the oldest inhabited city in the world, I arrived a short time later in the holy city of Bethlehem.
Christian history drips from the pores of Bethlehem, and its cornerstone is the Basilica of the Nativity — built over the Nativity Grotto, and the oldest continuously used place of worship in Christianity. The grotto is considered to be the cave where Jesus was born more than two thousand years ago. When Jesus’ father, Joseph, could not find lodging in Bethlehem, they took up quarters in the cave where Mary bore Jesus and placed Him in a manger. Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena commissioned the first basilica in 327 over the cave. The church was later rebuilt in 565 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian after a fire.
The basilica is unlike any you will ever visit. While it’s historic and covers a large area, the church is relatively simple for such an important basilica. You enter through a very low door called the “Door of Humility.” Once inside you see 44 columns, some painted with images of saints. Under the apse near the alter are two staircases leading down to the highlight of the Church of the Nativity: the birthplace of Jesus. Down the stairs in the cave is a 14-pointed silver star set in marble that marks the spot where Christ was born.
There is also quite a bit of history in the Church of Saint Catherine next door. I visited the underground grotto where Saint Jerome painstakingly translated the Bible from Hebrew for 30 years to the Latin Vulgate. Also down the stairs is the Chapel of Holy Innocents that commemorates the children killed by King Herod.
Since I visited on the Catholic and Protestant Easter Sunday, the church was extremely busy with pilgrims from all of the world plus a significant number of local Palestinian Christians worshipping in their main church. There was a special feeling in the air on my visit that I cannot quite describe, but I felt like I was in a holy place.
Exiting the front of the Church of the Nativity, I strolled across Manger Square, the main square of Bethlehem. It’s here that large crowds gather on Christmas Eve to sing Christmas carols before midnight services. My imagination transferred me to Christmas Eve and I vowed one day to return to this church that will remain permanently etched in my mind.