In the recent reports of the World Christian Database, it was estimated that there are roughly 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world. The biggest bulk at 41.3 percent are in Latin America.
Roma Catholics from Asia account for 11.7 percent of about 137 million and the Philippines is undoubtedly one of the leading catholic nations in the continent.
Yet it saddens me that while a majority of Filipinos are Roman Catholics, very few have been able to travel to the Holy Land and take a pilgrimage to the city of Bethlehem, where the history of the religion actually began.
Here in Bethlehem, in a humble manger, inside a cave, Jesus Christ was born. And in what used to be a shepherd’s land, the Church of the Nativity was constructed as early as becoming one of the leading symbols and pilgrimage sites of Roman Catholicism.
I understand that financial limitations and the sheer distance of Bethlehem from the Philippines are major factors for the inability of most Roman Catholics to see the site. Without any pride, I feel so lucky that I was able to visit it during my last trip to Israel.
The Church of the Nativity
With its original structure built as early as 339 AD, the Church of the Nativity is considered as the oldest complete church in the Christian world. It was built by Emperor Constantine and his mother St. Helena. (They also ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). It was damaged of course but the church was restored by Justinian, the Byzantine emperor in the 6th century.
To enter the church, you have to pass through a very low which will require you to stoop down literally. Historical accounts say that the main entrnce was lowered in the 1500 to avoid looters from dragging their carriages inside.
Now, the lowered entrance is meant to remind Roman Catholics and all visitors of the importance of humility and bowing to Christ.
Inside, the church is cold and dark. Pillars support the church and there are no long seats found in modern churches.
Instead, pilgrims kneel down in front of the altar. There are also a few chairs near the altar for older visitors.
During peak season (which is around Holy Week), it will take 1.5 hours for visitors to finally see the star of the nativity, where the child Jesus was born.
During my visit, I wasnt even lucky to touch the star because a holy mass was on-going. But the site of the star was enough for me, and I made my conversation to God directly.
Outside of the main church, there are medieval hallways as well as a simple but beautiful garden.
Aside from the elaborate altar, the entire church is relatively low key reflecting the humble beginnings of Jesus.
|Star of Nativity. Photo courtesy of seetheholyland.net|
I took my time praying and stayed at the church for 30 minutes.
Looking around before I left, I noticed that most of the visitors from are Europe, Africa and North America.and very few people from Asia.
I just hope that someday, more Filipinos and more people from the Asia are able to travel to the Holy land and see first hand the origins of the religion.
If anything, it would allow them to strengthen their faith.
I for example, traveled to the Holy Land, in part to renew my faith. I can’t say that my my faith has been restored fully but nearly two weeks stay in Israel allowed me to get in touch with my inner self. It allowed me to talk directly to God without the frills and dictated ways and procedures.
I can totally say that my visit to the Church of the Nativity is quite an experience. One, that others should have too.
Despite the political between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, getting to Bethlehem which is located inside the West Bank, is fairly simple.
From Jerusalem, you can go to the Arabic Bus Station (Bab el-amoud) located just outside of the Damascus Gate in the Old City. You can take Bus. No. 21 which drops you off at the center of town. Cost is 7.5 shekels and takes about 40-45 minutes. Note however, that this bus is still a good distance from the major sites in Bethlehem and you have to take a cab (20-40 shekels) depending on the driver. But basically, the drop off point is about 15 minutes away from the Church.
Going Back to Jerusalem
Here’s the tricky part. Most tour buses and cabbies visit the Israel-Palestinian wall towards the end of the Bethlehem tour. This is because it is quite near the checkpoint. Because Israel is a very volatile country, it requires all visitors to submit to a checkpoint at the border.
If you’re not from Palestine, you can thank your lucky stars because the crossing is quite simple for you. If you are Palestinian, then it’s a different story. Crossing the checkpoint takes a lot of time and the queues are long. But after the checkpoint, the travel back to Jerusalem takes about 10-15 minutes and only costs 5 shekels.