the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

winter 1998 - online version


by Kathryn Fleming

So often we wonder how many times did Mary see or pass through, or live in Bethlehem before she gave birth to Jesus. As a pious and religious Jew she was probably taken as a child to Bethlehem with her parents - perhaps to visit the tomb of Rachel; or to view the City of David the home of their ancestor and to play in the fields of Boaz; or maybe her family would journey through Bethlehem on pilgrimage to Hebron.

MARY, was born in Jerusalem and lived her childhood near the holy Temple (in the vicinity of the Bethesda pools). It is understood from traditions based on apocryphal writings that she resided with her parents where the Church of St. Anne’s stands today. When the miraculous Annunciation occurred in her young life, Mary was living in Nazareth. But as a girl, before she was betrothed to Joseph, she must have already visited Bethlehem. Why? Because Bethlehem is where Rachel’s tomb is located. And Jews would pay homage to this biblical site, at least annually. Today, the city is only 9 kilometers (about 5.6 miles) south of Jerusalem. It was a village one would pass through while journeying to Hebron where six of the greatest figures in the book of Genesis are buried: (The three great patriarchs) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, (and their respective wives) Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah. Certainly, Mary was acquainted with Bethlehem at an early age. But before giving birth to Jesus, she did not know how significant Bethlehem would become. She humbly said "yes" to God . . . and it changed the world forever.

BETHLEHEM, O little town of great people! We read first in Genesis that at your (northern) doors Rachel died in childbirth and was buried by her husband, Jacob. We discover elsewhere in the Old Testament that you are cherished as the home of Naomi, Obed, Ruth, Jesse and King David - all natives to Bethlehem [except for Ruth, a foreigner, assimilated by marriage]. And we remember you as the ancestral home of Joseph, Mary’s beloved husband. We know this is where St. Jerome wrote the Latin Vulgate and where St. Paula and her daughter, St. Eustochium, aided him and several Christians. Most of all, Bethlehem, we esteem you as the chosen birthplace for our Savior / Messiah, Jesus Christ; and here too, we honor his mother, Mary.

Beth-lehem (in Hebrew) means "House (beth) of bread (lehem)." Through centuries, wheat and barley have grown on Bethlehem’s east side. Ruth gleaned in the barley fields of Boaz. And, interestingly, one day in a synagogue, Jesus claimed to be the "Bread of Life." (John 6). Beit-lahem (in Arabic) means "House (beit) of meat (lahem)." Wherever you discover grains growing, close by you will find the animals that feed upon them. Sheep and goats graze in the fields of Bethlehem (the ‘house of provisions’ ). Remember David was a shepherd boy from Bethlehem. To this very day shepherds and their flocks traverse the hillsides (and some of the city streets) of Bethlehem. Yes, shepherds’ fields from the first century still exist . . . Recall, also, that Jesus proclaimed, "I am the Good Shepherd" (John 10:11).

Much has been written about the little town of Bethlehem, today a modest city just inside the West Bank. Many articles relate its historical, religious, and theological significance, especially for Christians. Focusing on Mary and her relationship to Bethlehem is nothing new either. Has everything been said? Perhaps. Nevertheless, millions of people throughout the world continue to enjoy hearing about the events associated with Christ’s nativity, birthplace, and homeland (including his endearing mother, Mary). This article, highlighting Mary in relationship to Bethlehem and her shrines may reveal some unacclaimed information and renew or spark an interest in Our Lady in her native Land.

The greatest shrines in Bethlehem venerate the Christ Child. These include: the renowned Basilica of the Nativity along with its Nativity of the Grotto, and the lesser known Milk Grotto. Mary is honored at these shrines, as well as others such as the Hortus Conclusus. There are numerous private and personal shrines or figures of Jesus and Mary that remain unknown and uncounted. When you are in the unassuming little town it’s not surprising to look up and see a form of "Mary over Bethlehem." But, the people do not ‘adore’ her. Nor is she more important than her Son. She does, however, beautifully intimate ‘the Mother who gave birth to the Divine Son, Jesus Christ, in Bethlehem.’ So, the Christians here have a special love for her. Some of them have experienced her sweet presence and her effective or powerful prayer. In very personal ways, she seems particularly close to them. Remarkably, too, non-Christians visit the grottoes and shrines to pray and to ask God for special graces.

Without going into great detail, the first and foremost shrine in which Mary is co-honored is the Nativity Basilica and its Nativity Grotto. So much material is available to read on this church and grotto . . . you only have to find the best publications. A most important piece of information to grasp, is that this is most likely the very place where Jesus was born! Historical, geographical, archeological evidence and Church tradition mutually support it. Upon entering the Nativity Grotto situated a little below the basilica, you will see the Greek Orthodox spot for the birthplace of Christ lit by 16 lamps and marked by a silver star on the floor. Circling the star, in Latin, are the words: Here, Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.

The second most well-known shrine in Bethlehem to Mary and Jesus is the Milk Grotto. It’s only a short walk from Manger Square. This site, however, receives fewer visitors in comparison to the Nativity Basilica and Nativity Grotto. Although devotions at the Milk Grotto stem from local stories and pious legends, various proofs relate that since as early as the 6th century local people and pilgrims were drawn to the oratory that for so long was just a poor cavern. Beliefs associated with the Grotto are based on events following Christ’s birth and prior to the holy family’s flight to Egypt. Because Jesus was dedicated in the Jerusalem’s Holy Temple 40 days after his birth, and Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents included all infants 2 years of age or less (in and around Bethlehem), it is believed that the holy family resided in the vicinity of the Milk Grotto for approximately 2 years before their departure. In this area Mary concealed and nourished her newborn child. It may be difficult to understand or to accept some of the unusual stories associated with this shrine. Nevertheless, prayers have been answered, miracles have happened and people blessed after visiting the venerated Milk Grotto. And since Byzantine times or earlier, mothers, both Christian and Moslem have had constant recourse to Our Lady of the Grotto seeking the ample supply of milk needed for feeding their infants or petitioning God to have a baby. A devotion grew to the Mother of Jesus under the title of Our Lady of the Milk. At the Grotto, she is presented to the eyes of all who come, as the complete Mother: one who lovingly carried, birthed, protected and nursed her Divine Son. During the epoch in which the sanctuary came into being, the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) likewise proclaimed the "Divine Maternity of Mary."

In 1375, the Franciscans of the Holy Land acquired the small church built over the Grotto by the Crusaders and left destroyed by the Saracens. They received it upon request from the Sultan of Egypt along with a nearby monastery previously occupied by monks of the Greek rite. Between the 15th and the 20th centuries Bethlehem, Catholics and the Franciscans have gradually restored, and periodically renovate, the sanctuary and Grotto altar. It is a humble Marian shrine with an aura of wonder and devotion.

The surrounding region of Bethlehem portrays a pastoral setting amidst rather dry and sand-colored hills. Yet, another Marian shrine, remote, quietly beautiful and rich in verdant colors resides at the (southern) doors of Bethlehem in a village called "Ortas." [In Arabic, Ortas is transliterated from the Spanish word "Huertas," (derived from the Latin word Hortus) meaning Garden.] The site and church, Our Lady of the Hortus Conclusus, was built by funds from Mgr. Soler Archbishop of Montevideo (Uruguay) and dedicated to Mary in 1901-02. He was inspired by his Holy Land visit to build a shrine in the area he found so green and so charming - like the "Hortus Conclusus" (Garden Enclosed) mentioned in the Song of Solomon. One can approach the village by taking the road that passes what are known as Solomon’s Pools. Here, the land is endowed with tall cypress trees and vegetation fed by rain water and a nearby spring. Down the road you will notice a bridge crossing a fertile valley. The small valley below encompasses a large, lush garden of fruits and vegetables. This belongs to the convent of the Daughters of Holy Mary of the Garden who are also known as the Sisters of Hortus Conclusus. They have kept the grounds, convent and church lovely for nearly 100 years. They have also operated a large, local orphanage since 1903. At this shrine, the Church bestows on Mary two inspiring and symbolical titles given to the Spouse in the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) 4:12: "A Locked Garden, a Sealed Fountain."1 The titles and their meanings are worthy to ponder and hopefully engender a closer reading of the biblical text. The Church gives them to Mary in recognition of her spiritual espousal to the Holy Spirit. Ironically, the garden and shrine of the Hortus Conclusus indeed appears as a "locked garden" lying within a small, fully enclosed valley. And, just across the bridge, the spring that feeds the fountain in Ortas was known to pilgrims as the Fons Signatus, the "Sealed Fountain." So, too, later in time was the fountain named.

In and near Bethlehem "holy" babies were born and innocent infants killed. And now special shrines remain also to remind us of God’s chosen maiden, Blessed Mary, the Pure Virgin ["a locked garden," "a sealed fountain"]. He espoused her to become the Mother of God; she gave her whole life in submission to the Divine plan to save mankind. In a sense, Jesus Christ’s birthplace will never forget her . . . , and so remains the love of Mary over Bethlehem

© copyright 1998

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