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On the Trail of the Nativity

Home > Jerusalem > Christmas | Churches | Places of Worship | Travel | Unusual Things to do
by Cressida Ryan (subscribe)
Classicist and traveller
Published December 20th 2018
On the Trail of the Nativity

At Christmas time we all have our own narratives of the journey Mary, Joseph, and then Jesus undertook, but rarely do we match that to the awesome sites themselves. With a car and a few days, you can get follow the few hundred kilometres from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and follow in the Holy Family's tracks for yourself.

bethlehem, israel, palestine, jesus, church, nativity
Once in Royal David's City

The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came

The Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would become the Mother of God. This important event is marked in Nazareth by two splendid churches. The main basilica is shared by most Christian denominations.

annunciation, basilica, nazareth, mary, israel
The basilica of the Annunciation

The impressive church itself sits on top of a grotto to Mary, where prayer continues after the church above has shut, and layers of history can be read in the architectural remains.

annunciation, basilica, nazareth, mary, israel
The basilica garden

The Greek Orthodox church, however, is slightly further north. It is based on a tradition that Mary was fetching water at a well when the angel appeared to her. Situated at the junction known as Mary's well, the church is built around a small spring.

orthodox, basilica, annunciation, mary, nazareth, israel
Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation

It may only be c.170km (depending on your route) to get to Bethlehem, but the terrain is harsh, mountainous and dry. We may coo at cute renditions of 'Little Donkey', but there's nothing sweet about the journey that was undertaken for the census.

Once in Royal David's City

In Bethlehem, Manger Square lies in the centre, quiet in the morning, and absolutely packed with cars by a Sunday lunchtime. The church complex includes the Orthodox church, which incorporates the shrine itself, and the Catholic church next door, off a Franciscan cloister. You can visit in your own time, but there are also frequent services in which you can participate. The central cave is largely inaccessible on a Sunday due to the number of Masses held.

bethlehem, israel, palestine, jesus, church, nativity
Entrance to the Church of the Nativity

While you're in the area, you should go around the corner to the Milk Grotto. Here the white stone is attributed to Mary's milk dropping onto it as she stopped to feed the baby Jesus. A cave shrine and simple chapels, including one of perpetual adoration, draw worshippers from all around.

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The Milk Grotto

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night

We might not know precisely where any shepherding happened 2000 years ago, but one field has been designated the place, with a beautiful chapel, peaceful garden, and cave shelter. Wander around by yourself, or plan a group worship - it all happens here. You will need transport though as it's a few kilometres outside of Bethlehem.

shepherds field chapel bethlehem jesus church
The Shepherds' Field chapel

Inside the chapel, a small altar provides a focus for worship, but the walls and ceilings also draw your eyes with decorations to commemorate the shepherds' experience in both word and image.

shepherds field chapel bethlehem jesus church
Gloria in excelsis Deo

Flying into Israel will take you to Tel-Aviv. From there it is about two hours by car to Nazareth, where there are lots of hotels to start your journey at, and a number of other tourist sites, including a 'reconstructed' village, and the Cactus Ancient Baths. Bethlehem is also a bustling modern city worth spending time in beyond your pilgrimage route. The Christmas story for real is a trip worth making.

Note that at the time of writing, December 2018, you cannot usually take hire cars into Area B. You will, therefore, need to hire a driver or find alternative transport to investigate the area properly, but this is easily and cheaply done).

bethlehem, israel, palestine, jesus, church, nativity
Wall paintings in the Church of the Nativity
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Why? Following in the footsteps of the Holy Family
When: Any time
Where: Israel
Your Comment
Great title and article, thanks Cressida.
by Jenny Prior (score: 3|4244) 1287 days ago
Congrats on the award and such a richly detailed article.
by Michael Genrich (score: 3|1856) 1288 days ago
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