For many people the Pilgrimage would not be complete if it were not possible to take gifts back to people in their families, churches and communities. So after a very enjoyable lunch we head off to a local olive wood co-operative. It helps to provide for a good many families and has a huge amount of different gift and souvenir possibilities. As usual our Pilgrims brought lots of all of it, or so it seemed. Shopping always seems to take as quite a lot of time as there are always such long queues. It is perhaps because of this that by the time we are back on our buses and have travelled to Bethlehem there is a long queue to get into the Basilica of the Nativity and especially into the Grotto of the Nativity itself.
The Basilica is being renovated for the first time in many years and much of the work is because there is a leak in the roof. This has led to the discovery of some beautiful mosaics and previously unseen ornamentation which will clearly be great to see when they are properly on show. But it doesn’t make queuing a great experience as everyone is effectively surrounded by scaffolding and screening. When we arrived the queue for the Grotto (the site where Jesus was born) was not really moving and we were a long way back. The thing is that there is only one very small entrance into the Grotto and when there is a service going on no one can get in. We were told that the wait would be about half an hour. It is very difficult to know quite what to do when something like that happens on a Pilgrimage. You see it is really hard to wait that long but sometimes it is the only thing to do. So, the Dean asked if any who had been before and who had seen the Grotto on a previous occasion would like, rather than waiting, to go and see the Milk Grotto – which was in the programme for everyone if there had been time. It was clear that there would not be time and so this would give some an opportunity to see it which they would not otherwise be able to do. Just nine joined the Dean and the rest stopped in the Basilica.
I went with the Dean as I have seen the Grotto on a number of occasions and had really wanted to see the Milk Grotto – more of that later. Sadly the wait was more than four times that which had been suggested and I gather that whilst for some the experience of seeing the Grotto was extremely special and that they would have been happy if they had done nothing else but this on the Pilgrimage. For others the fact that being in a queue where those who were in charge of the queue were rude to them was a really unpleasant experience. Some, who were less mobile, were able to sit and wait for the time when they could get into the Grotto. The steps are very steep and they were apparently helped down the stairs by a group of Austrian students who were also waiting. They also helped them up the other side out of the Grotto and both groups clearly found it a very moving experience to do this together. People who had never met before were thrust together to do something very special and will – I think – for ever remember this and be glad for it.
But for others the altar and star on site of the birth of Jesus was spoiled by the rudeness and the fact that getting down the steps is very difficult and people were not waiting for each other and it felt as if it might become quite easy to slip and for there to be an accident.
These are some of the things upon which we reflected later in the evening as we travelled back on the coach to St George’s for Evening Prayer and over dinner. How do we balance the desire to see as much as possible and yet not to be exhausted by doing this? How do we reconcile the fact that those who are custodians of such important places are not always as helpful and kind as we would hope that they would be? How do we integrate such experiences into our trip and into our faith and memories? It will of course be different for everyone and it is all part of what making a pilgrimage is about: how to be with others and with ourselves during tiring and difficult days in which we also visit and experience some of the most important and deeply moving places and things that we will ever see. I think that I learn as much about myself on these trips as I do about the place in which my faith was born and in so learning about myself and the place in which Jesus spent his life I know that my faith is deepened and sustained.
Those of us who went to the Milk Grotto had an experience which we all found to be really powerful. Dean Andrew visited the Milk Grotto when he was on sabbatical and spent time in Jerusalem in 2016. As you face the Basilica it is up the street on your right passed all gift shops. Understandably it is called Milk Grotto Street! The only real evidence of its presence is the sign for the church. You enter into a place of calm and beauty as you move off the street into the grounds and towards the church. The Dean explained to us that the story goes that on the way from Bethlehem to Egypt Mary and Joseph stopped and Mary feed Jesus. A drop of milk fell on a stone and turned it white and ever since this has been a place where women have come and prayed in this place ever since in order to help with fertility problems. The church and the site upon which it stands is looked after by an enclosed, silent order of French Nuns and one of the order is in place to venerate the blessed sacrament 24 hours a day. I have to say it is the biggest exposed Blessed Sacrament for veneration that I have ever seen.
We were fortunate that just as we arrived the Sisters came in to say the office and we were able to watch and pray with them. It was an amazing sight and made so much more brilliant by the precision with which they moved through the service and their singing was exquisite.
Leaving the chapel the way out moves you through another plain small chapel with the most wonderful stained glass and the shadows and colours cast by it were quite extraordinary.
Leaving there we returned to the church of the Nativity and met up with our companions ready for the return bus journey to Jerusalem in order to say evening prayer.
The journey back to Jerusalem took a long time as the traffic was dreadful. So as a result of the time taken to get into the Grotto and with the traffic we were late for St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and they were kind enough to wait for us. Dean Hosam Naoum was with us for the service as was Archbishop Suheil’s Chaplain (and former Associate Vicar at the North Lambeth Team) David Longe .
It was lovely to be in St George’s which is so much a little bit of England in a very foreign land and yet so Middle Eastern at the same time. But time was short and everyone was tired and so as soon as the service had finished we headed off back to dinner at the Hotel.
Despite our tiredness we were pleased to have Dean Naoum join us for dinner and to talk to us about the situation for Christians in the Holy Land.
He gave an informative talk on the Diocese of Jerusalem and the work that it tries to do across the five countries it serves. He spoke of the importance of the work that the Christian church does across the communities as part of their service of Christ and of the multi-faceted and multi layered joys and difficulties of this remarkable place.
Oh and it was Thinking Day for the Guides and so we had a photo of the Guides who were with us and Nicole Burgum who has been involved in Guiding led Compline.
Following the meeting the Pilgrims retired to bed ready for another early start as we prepared to move north to Tiberius for the second half of our Pilgrimage which seems to be going very quickly.