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Bethlehem

So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb." (Gen. 35,16-19)

"And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David)." (Luke 2,4)

"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the lord."(Luke 2,11)

The town of Bethlehem sits 2500 feet high on a limestone ridge just five miles south of Jerusalem. It is surrounded by olive orchards, fertile fields and vineyards while shepherds tend their sheep in the open pasture lands. And yes, they tend their flocks on Christmas Eve just as was done 2,000 years ago.

Bethlehem in Hebrew means House of Bread (Beit Lechem). Bethlehem is an important spot for Judaism, and Islam and the Christian religion. Kever Rachel, the Tomb of Rachel, is the place where Rachel died in childbirth It has been one of religious symbol of suffering and motherly love ever since. Women flock here to pray for a child or for a safe delivery.

"Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, "Don't be afraid, for you have another son. As she breathed her last --for she was dying --she named her son Ben-oni. But his father named him Benjamin. (Gen. 35,16-18)

Bethlehem is the setting for The Book of Ruth, where Ruth, a widow and a convert, marries the wealthy landowner Boaz. Bethlehem was also the birthplace and childhood home of David. He tended his father's flocks in these fields and was anointed king here by the prophet Samuel.

The Basilica of Nativity
Christian pilgrims from around the world come here to commemorate the birth of Jesus. Joseph and the Virgin Mary had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for a tax census and here, in a cave, Christ was born. The Grotto of the Nativity is an underground sanctuary below the Basilica of Nativity. To enter the Basilica, pilgrims kneel and step through the Door of Humility. The small narrow door was, in past centuries, designed to prevent Muslim invaders from entering on horseback.

The Basilica of Nativity is known as the oldest church in the world to be continuously used. It was built in 326 CE by Queen Helene, the mother of Constantine and was finished in 339. Only the exquisite mosaic floors remain. In 614 CE, every Christian shrine was destroyed except for the Basilica. Apparently it was spared when the conquerors saw the mosaic of the Three Wise Men on the wall and thought that this has special powers. The church celebrates Catholic Mass, Armenian Mass and Greek Orthodox Mass at different times each day.

Christians gather below in the Birth Cave to see the place where baby Jesus was born. On the floor is a silver star (added in 1717) with 14 points symbolizing the 14 stations of the Via Dolorosa. Here reads the following inscription: "Here, of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born."

Shepherds Field
On the eastern edge of Bethlehem is the famous Shepherds Field. For here, those tending their flocks were greeted by an angel who pronounced the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:8-12). This is also the setting of the biblical story of Ruth. She worked in these fields so she could bring home food for her mother-in-law Naomi. Nearby is the Latin Shepherd's Field commemorated by a fourth century Franciscan Church and the Greek Orthodox Shepherds Field with its impressive Byzantine Basilica.

St. Catherine's Church
Bethlehem is also home to St. Catherine's Church which was built in 1881 by the Franciscans. Exquisite wood carvings depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross line the walls. The Chapel of St. Joseph commemorates a vision f Joseph. Herod had heard that a new king of Israel as born and felt threatened. Where the Chapel stands, an angel told Joseph to run away with his family to Egypt to avoid the anger of Herod. The tombs of St. Jerome, St. Paula and St. Paula's daughter, Eustachia, are also here as well as the cell where Jerome produced the Vulgate, a fourth century translation of the Hebrew bible into Latin.

Milk Grotto Church
Christian women who have fertility problems go to the Milk Grotto Church for solace and prayer. This cellar, with its milky white walls, is thought to be the cave where the Holy Family hid when they were running away from Herod en route to Egypt. According to legend, Mary's milk fell while she was nursing the baby Jesus. To this day, women come here to pray to Mary Mother of Jesus for a child and can get a small packet of white dust that they use as a fertility charm.


Jesus of Nazareth Mary Magdalene: Mariamne Early Christianity
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