In the land of the gospel amazing holy places visited

EDITOR’S NOTE: In celebration of the Christmas Season the author recalls his weeklong journey to Holy Land to retrace Jesus’ Footsteps in Jerusalem in the observance of 2000th year of HisIncarnation.

There are several popular sites in the Holy Land that are entirely different from what one used to imagine them in all his life. The best examples are the Grotto of Nativity, the House of the Holy Family, theJordan River, the Mountain of Temptation and the Dead Sea.

The Grotto of Nativity over which the Church of Nativity was built was the first holy place that stunned me in many ways.

As soon as we disembarked from the motorcoach of the Adam’s Travel Express – organizer of our pilgrimage in coordination with SwissAir, one of the world’s leading airlines – we immediately looked for the church’s main entrance so we could enter, but we could not find it. “Where’s the door,” we all cried. When our guide pointed to a four-foot-high opening, we gasped in disbelief. This entrance to basilica is too small that to enter it we had to bend over as we were entering a small tunnel or cave. Our guide told us that the door now named Door of Humility used to be big but it reduced in size in the 17th century, so that the Muslim could not ride into the church on their horses.

The imposing basilica is surrounded by three monastery buildings belonging to different Christian Churches.

As we surveyed the inside of the church more revelation greeted us.

We Filipinos tend to think of Jesus’ birthplace as a thatched hut stable with wooden troughs for oats and hays, and a file of fodder on which the three Wise Men knelt to worship “the new born child”. This is exactly how we make our Belen Manger during Christmas. But this is not we saw inside the church. The Holy Manger is hewn out of stone and covered with marble strips. In the eastern side of the cave is a circular recess, containing a large silver star which designates the spot where, as tradition has it, Jesus was born. The star has 14 points and is inscribed with a Latin inscription which translates, “Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary”.

Above the star is a remnant of Crusader mosaic depicting the revelation of the birth.

Grotto of Nativity has three altars: Altar of Christ Birth. Here a silver star lit by the light from 15 silver lamps representing the different Christian communities marks the traditional place of Jesus’ birth.
The two other altars that face each other across the cave are:

The Altar of the Manger, the place baby Jesus (Sto Niño) was laid after he was born.

The Altar of the Magi stands at the place where the Magi paid homage to the New Born Son of God.

We also discovered that the Home of the Holy Family in one’s imagination is different from reality. While one may tend to imagine their house with stairs but in reality there are none because it was in a cave called Grotto of the Holy Family in Nazareth.

In the Holy Land, we were told, one will still find a number of ancient one-room houses built over caves in the limestone rock. Some of these caves, in which the animals sleep, are exactly the same as one which was recognized as the birthplace of Jesus two centuries before Rome was Christianized.

Our next destination was the Jordan River, commonly believed to be the place where Jesus was baptized by John. The river was a surprise to us because we thought all along that it was like any ordinary rivers in the Philippines but it turned out to be as narrow , if not a little larger than, an old canal in Manila.

The thin forest that lined its banks gives the river a refreshing look. Added to this, the river’s water is crystal clear, clean and sweet-smelling.

Here we visited the “Yardenit” Baptismal Center which was built by numbers of the nearby Kinneret kibbutz (an Israeli cooperative) to receive big numbers of pilgrims that go to the place where the pilgrims renew their baptism. Cornelio de Guzman

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