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Photo: Melanie Williams

Two pilgrims enter into the birthplace of St. John the Baptist.

A Holy Land Pilgrimage: Pt. 5 — Step this way — to the place of Our Lord's Birth

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The entrance to the Church and Monastery of St. John the Baptist.

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The Church of St. John the Baptist.

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The Canticle of Zechariah in English on the wall of the courtyard of the Church of St. John the Baptist.

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Inside the Church of St. John the Baptist.

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The altar commemorating the birth of St. John the Baptist.

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In Latin, it reads, "Here the forerunner of the Lord was born."

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In the courtyard of the Church of the Visitation.

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The Magnificat in English outside the Church of the Visitation.

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Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel

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Inside the Church of the Visitation.

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Inside the Church of the Visitation.

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Catholic chapel in the Shepherd's field, Bethlehem, Israel

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Holy Mass in the Cave of St. Jerome underneath the Church of St. Catherine and the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Israel

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The icon of Our Lady of Bethlehem outside the Grotto of the Nativity.

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Entering the Grotto of the Nativity, where our Lord Jesus Christ was born.

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The place of the cave where Church tradition has held for centuries to be the place where Jesus Christ was born.

By Melanie Williams (Mar 6, 2018)
From Oct. 26 - Nov. 5, 2017, staff writer Melanie Williams went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Having walked where Jesus walked, prayed where He prayed, and experienced the current Middle Eastern cultural and political climate, she would like to share some of her pilgrimage and journey with you. Today, in the fifth part of an nine-part weekly series travel to Ein Karem, the place of the Visitation, and Bethlehem, where our Savior was born.

Oct. 31, 2017 - for those of you in the States it was Halloween; for me it was Christmas. On this date I was travelling to Bethlehem to celebrate the Christmas liturgy, as is celebrated every day of the year in the Church of the Nativity.

We began our day waking up in Jerusalem and heading towards Ein Karem. On the bus I began to put myself in the mindset of Our Lady. She had just received the message from the Archangel Gabriel and conceived the Son of God in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. He told her of her cousin, Elizabeth, who, "has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God" (Lk 1:36-37).

She then "set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah" (Lk 1:41).

Having travelled through that very hill country, we arrived in Ein Karem at the Church of St. John the Baptist, where tradition holds is the place where Elizabeth gave birth to St. John. It was a peaceful place, it's courtyard surrounded by ceramic murals of the Canticle of Zechariah in various languages (see Lk 1:67-80).

As we entered the church, I was dazzled. The walls are covered in beautiful white and blue ceramic tiles. Sunlight filled the place. The whole interior seemed to rejoice with God's glory.

To the side and below the main altar is the place where tradition holds Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist. The archway above reads in Latin, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, He has visited His people" (Lk 1:68). Underneath the altar reads in Latin, "Here the forerunner of the Lord was born."

From there we walked up the hill to the Church of the Visitation, where tradition holds was the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Mary made the journey here from Nazareth, and upon entering the house, greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled" (Lk 1:41-54).


The façade of the church features a mosaic of the Visitation, and the courtyard features ceramic tiles of the Magnificat, the famous song of praise that Mary first gave voice to here (see Lk 1:46-56).

Beneath the church, a well commemorates the ordinary life of Elizabeth and Mary when she visited her cousin and helped her. The upper church features a modern painting of Mary, the Mother of God, and other paintings featuring the mysteries of the Rosary, in particular the mystery of the Visitation.

The church overlooks the hill country of Judea. I imagined Mary in her time there, how she might have sat outside, taken in the beauty of God's creation, and meditated on the mysteries of God and the salvation of mankind taking place in her very life. "How often do I take the time to reflect on the wonders and workings of God in my own life," I thought to myself.

From here we journeyed on toward Bethlehem and stopped at a Catholic chapel at a place called the "Shepherd's field." Here you find caves that date back 2,000 years. These may have been the very caves where the shepherds in Scripture received the message from the angels announcing the Lord's birth (see Lk 2:8-15).

We then made our way into Bethlehem, the place of our Lord's birth, a bustling city today. We visited the Church of the Nativity and the adjacent Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the local parish.

We celebrated Mass, the liturgy of Christmas, in the Cave of St. Jerome, underneath the Church of St. Catherine. The cave is called such because it is where St. Jerome spent 30 years translating the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. At this Mass I chose to sing "O Holy Night" as our Communion hymn. Here, nearby the birthplace of our Lord, I let the words echo in the chapel and in my heart:

O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine!
O night when Christ was born
O night divine!
O night, O night divine!



Truly, how divine was that momen¬t - to be in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord where He was born on this earth.

Next to the Cave of St. Jerome is the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, where tradition holds many infants were buried after the killing of infants by Herod's decree (see Mt 2:16-18). Also nearby is the place where tradition holds St. Joseph was sleeping when he received the dream telling him to take Mary and the child Jesus and flee to Egypt (see Mt 2:13-14).

The Church of the Nativity is the oldest standing Christian basilica (completed in the sixth century) and is in the custody of the Greek Orthodox. The basilica is currently under restoration - they have uncovered murals dating as far back as the 12th century and mosaic floors from the third century.

In the very back of the basilica and beneath the main altar is the Grotto of the Nativity, built around the cave that Christians since the second century have held to be the birthplace of Jesus. The wait in line to enter the cave can reach up to a few hours, but thankfully it wasn't that long for us. It gave me just enough time to pray the joyful mysteries of the Rosary as I approached the very spot where our Lord was born to save us all.

Crammed between people, I shuffled with my fellow pilgrims down into the grotto. I was given just a second to kneel down and venerate the star commemorating the place of our Lord's birth. It read Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est ("Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary"). My pictures didn't come out the best, but my heart was filled with wonder and awe. It was another powerful moment I will never forget. I paused and tried to take in what was really happening - I was in the very cave where Jesus was born. I had celebrated this every year since I was a child, and now I was in the very spot where it happened! I cannot describe fully in words the excitement and awe I had at being in this holy place.

I realized that Jesus not only entered into history at this very place, but He enters into history every day of our lives. In our daily interactions with others, in the Eucharist, in our trials and triumphs, we can open our hearts to allow God to enter into history again. Only by more people allowing God to work in their lives will this world change for the better. As the hymn I sang at Mass continues, "Truly He taught us to love one another. His law is love and His gospel is peace." It was, and is, my prayer that we all may learn to love one another more and spread His Gospel of peace.

Our last stop was to the Milk Grotto, where tradition holds Mary nursed Jesus before fleeing to Egypt, and some of her milk fell to the ground. Christian women throughout the century have mixed the white chalk powder from this grotto with their food and consumed it in hopes of obtaining help in conceiving. The walls are covered with framed letters and baby pictures from around the world, sent by women who attest to the miracles of Our Lady's intercession from this special place.

As we concluded our day, I realized that, in a certain sense, the day would never end. What I had experienced that day lives on in my heart as I journey with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in my daily life.

Follow the entire series

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Jeannette Clark - Mar 28, 2018

"I can only imagine!"