Boker tov (again):
I say again, because I had this trip report done and lost it, so “play it again Sam”.
I made peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast. I am really wowing them with my culinary talent! We were running late and our guide and driver was probably down stairs waiting for us. Rami was our Guide and Tarek our driver. Rami was highly recommended and as our trip progressed we knew we had made a good choice.
We got thru the border without being stopped, while it took Rami almost one hour to come thru to get us. Bethlehem is only 5 miles from our Apartment, in Palestine. Lots of rules here. Tarek pulled into a parking lot right in front of the Church of the Nativity. There weren’t any busses yet and only a few cars, which was unusual.
We had to bend to get in the church which is under renovation and not very impressive at first glance. We stopped at the pillar of intentions, where you put your fingers in the five holes embedded there. We all did (Sam had to get help LOL) and prayed for all of you. Rami got us to the entrance of the grotto almost in front of the Cave entrance where Jesus was born. There were a few people in the line in front of us and a few that started to fill in behind us to enter the Grotto. The steps down into the Grotto are very steep and dark and dangerous. Some people began to try to jockey for a better position to attempt to get closer to the front of the line. As we were led in and proceeded down the stone steps, this big man behind us was trying to push ahead of us and started to fall. If Susan, Sam and I had not caught him … he would have sky-rocketed down the steps and knocked all of us and everyone in front of us down along his way! He wasn’t even apologetic, but he did wait his turn after all!
When you reach the bottom and enter the Grotto through a small alcove and into a chamber where, immediately on the right, is an Altar with an opening below it with a beautiful star inlayed in the ground floor to mark the spot where Our Savior, Jesus Christ, was born. Three people were kneeling down when we arrived. We assumed that they were venerating the stone. Instead, they were just under the Altar talking to each other and taking photos (ugh!). The guard had to finally come and demand them to get up. Another man behind was yelling to the three people and, when they left, he pushed his way in front of us so that he, too, could take some photos. This man departed without even reverencing the site … so much for reverence and Love of Christ.
We then took our turns kneeling under the Altar and venerating this most Sacred Area where Christ was Born. I don’t know about the others, but it was an experience that I cannot explain in words quite yet. It was difficult to leave the area after such a short stay, but the lines had become long and, out of respect for others, we moved on.
We were standing just past the Grotto speaking with our guide Rami as he explained that the area in front of the Grotto of the Birth of Our Lord (about 15 feet away), there was another step-down alcove. This was where Jesus’ Manger had been that Jesus was laid in his Manger and watched over by Our Blessed Mother. By that time, the Shrine was jammed as Sam and I went over to try to take a peak. People were pushing and shoving trying to get in and out of this second Grotto Altar. We decided to stand and wait until a small group of people inside were finished and we just might have a chance to go in and Pray, even though it might have been for a very short period of time.
As we stood there, a guard came and made everyone leave the Alcove of the Manger and this younger Priest with an elderly woman were escorted down the steps and into the Alcove near an Altar. The Priest placed his Chalice on the table and began preparing for Mass. He sat his mother on a rock bench directly next to the Manger where we found out later Our Blessed Mother
sat while watching and caring for the Baby Child, Jesus, after his birth. Since there was no one else in front of us, we asked the Priest if it was at all possible for the four of us to join him for Mass along with his Mother and, in perfect English, he said “of course”. I ran back and told Rami that we were going to attend Mass and I grabbed Susan and Johna to rush them into the Alcove. Rami looked “clueless”.
Johna and Susan sat on a stone wall directly in front of the Manger. Sam and I sat on the entrance in and entrance out steps. There was barely enough room for the Priest to turn around as we all stood and he began Mass. The pushing and shoving began again with people trying to snap photos andenter the Alcove during Mass (with no room left). They were speaking loudly and very irreverent. Unwilling to accept the fact that they could not get in, they got rowdier and rowdier … Sam and I have the footprints on our backs to prove it (LOL). Sam played “Usher” and turned around and scoldedeveryone. The guard came over and finally quelled the crowd and the noise. I saw a small smile on the Priest’s face. Mass continued, giving us an opportunity, now, to realize where we were and the great honor and “gift” we had just received by being able to attend Mass in this Sacred Place of the Birth of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Three of the biggest offenders of the bedlam that had ensued actuallystayed on the steps of the Alcove for the remainder of the Mass and very respectfully participated in the Mass. Father accommodated them for Communion by breaking the Hosts to provide enough for them. Father’s Mother did the readings in Spanish (we learned they were from Argentina). I think it was the only time during the Mass that constant tears were not flowing from her eyes as she sat on the rock bench of Our Blessed Mother who had watched over our Lord … as this lovely woman watched her son celebrate Holy Mass in this Sacred Place.
The experience was different for all of us, I am certain, as our minds and hearts could not really grasp what was happening or what had just happened. After Mass was completed, we hugged the Priest and his Mother and took photos (of course). We learned that the Priest’s Mom has been suffering with Parkinson’s Disease for 8 years and we promised her our Prayers on our Special Intention Prayer List. Father was a very “holy man” with a very soft character and we could not thank him enough for the great honor he had bestowed upon us.
As we departed, we touched the walls of the Grotto knowing that many, many holy people, Popes & Saints had been there before us (hoping some of it might rub off on us!).
We left the Grotto and Rami was there waiting for us. He was amazed that we had been able to attend Mass … telling us that it was very, very unusual for something like that to happen. We felt Blessed.
Rami continued on with our tour. At that point, the four of us were
still “in another world” and just followed his lead to the Cave of St. Jerome. All I could think about was Mass at the Manger and the fact that The Holy Family had been there with Our Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph standing and sitting their caring for our Savior … not to mention receiving Communion in this Sacred Site … beyond words of explanation even now.
The Cave of Saint Jerome was very interesting and we could not imaginesomeone living there as a hermit for 33 years. However, his only job was totranslate the Bible and we thank him for that.
We departed the Shrine and Rami & Tarek took us to Shepherd’s Field. On the way, we stopped to see our friend, Rami’s (of Boca Raton and fellow Holy Sepulchre Knight) father, who lives in Bethlehem. “Boca Rami” is the one who was gracious enough to assist us with all of our plans for the West Bank … and we are grateful.
We shared words and laughs with his dad, who also played a key role in arranging this wonderful Palestinian and Ein Karemexperience for us. We promised to see Rami’s dad again in Boca Raton, Florida when he and his wife travel there to visit “Boca Rami” and his family.
Shepherd’s Field (which was just around the corner) is where the Angels announced the Birth of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, to the Shepherds in the Fields. We walked the field and entered a cave to see what it would have been like during that time. After our visit to the Field, we went to the Religious Store to pick up a few mementos.
We decided that, at that point, it was time for a break and some lunch. Rami walked us around a couple of streets until we reached this huge restaurant with tables the size of king-sized beds (well, maybe not quite that big) and cushioned bench chairs on all four sides. We didn’t look at a menu …at the direction of Rami, the food just started coming. In total, about 20-25 different types of salads, dips and breads that were placed on our table. We said Grace and dug in.
When there were enough dishes to remove, a large (extra large) platter of grilled lamb, beef, chicken, onions, tomatoes and French Fries arrived. Johna stuck with the salads since she does not eat meat on Fridays. We saved her a “doggie bag” but Sam made a sandwich with it that night so poor Johna “lost out”. Rami ordered the local drink … lemon juice, sugar, water and mint leaves…..it was delicious and we managed to finish the pitcher. The bill for the five of us, with tip, was $300 Shekels (about $15.00 US per person). Incredible and everything was just outstanding. (Not quite as good as our last trip to Krakow, but placed a close second!).
We decided to have Rami take us to Ein Karem and headed out of Bethlehem for the 30 minute drive. Again, we cross over the Palestinian/Israeli border, but we were not stopped at the checkpoint.Tarek (our driver) pulled up to a side street and we hopped out. We had to walk to the stairs of the walkway to the Church Shrine of the Visitation (Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth). Rami then informed us that we had 133 steps to climb if we were “up to the task” and, of course, we said “let’s go”. Undaunted by the 95 degree weather and the sun beating down up us, we began our ascent to the Shrine. I must say that it wasn’t easy but it was well worth it!
The Lower Church of the Shrine of the Visitation is where Saint Elizabeth took St. John the Baptist during the Slaughter of the Innocents and it is believed that the large enclosed rock in this Shrine which shows the indentation of a young baby is where the Angels placed St. John to protect him. The Upper Church of the Shrine is where Our Blessed Mother proclaimed the Magnificat, as the Sanctification of St. John the Baptist was conferred through the unborn Jesus Christ in Mary’s womb.
The four of us Prayed four decades of the Rosary in the Lower Church until a large group of pilgrims came in, so we went to the Upper Church to complete our Rosaries. Today, the word “Sacred” took on a whole new meaning for each of the four of us. As we Prayed the Rosary, each decade became alivein our minds, our hearts and our souls!
When we exited this Shrine, our faithful Rami was sitting there waiting for us and suggested that we walk to the Church of Saint John the Baptist, where he was born, and where Zachariah proclaimed his Canticle at the circumcision of Saint John the Baptist. As we departed, going down the steps was a lot easier. I had not realized that Rami was going to make us walk to this second Shrine. He had told us that there were not a lot of steps. I told him that if there were 10 or more, his tip for the day was gone … magically, there were 9 steps up and down into and out of the Shrine so the tip was safe … he lucked out!
editor’s note: Tom is not really that mean….he would have given him the tip if turned out to be a hundred steps.
While in the Shrine, we were Blessed to be able to venerate the spot where St. John the Baptist was born … again with another symbol imbedded into the floor of the Shrine. After spending some time in Prayer, we all felt it was time to return to our apartment … after a full and emotionally charged day.
On the way home, we asked Tarek to stop at an ATM because we didn’t have enough Shekels to pay them (LOL). If you ever come to The Holy Land … be sure to bring US Dollars … they love our dollars here instead of Shekels … wish I had known that. Tarek stopped at a Bank and I quickly crossed the street with no fighting of traffic because it was the Shabbat (Sabbath) and everything was closed (except for ATM machines). Mission accomplished, we were safely returned to our apartment. We shared words, hugged, thanks and said our good-byes. We hired Tarek to return to pick us up on Tuesday very early in the morning to take us back to Tel Aviv Airport.
We “floated” up the stairs to our apartment … well, I actually “floated” taking the very small elevator since my leg was killing me from all of the walking and climbing. Needless to say, it wasn’t over yet !!!!
After drinking a lot of water, Susan and I headed out to try to find a supermarket, if possible, to pick up some supplies of food and drinks. It was still the Shabbat and everything was closed, no cars on the streets and very, very few people walking. We walked and walked and finally found a very small (and very expensive) mini-market but at that point we didn’t care. We had to buy enough supplies for the evening and get home and in our jammies with our shoes off!
We had a delightful meal of “we don’t remember since I am writing this two days later”. All I do remember is that we had purchased a microwave package of Raman Noodles with Vegetables for Johna to eat, Sam ate the leftovers from lunch and Susan and I finished Susan’s left-overs from dinner the night before … a true “pilgrim’s gourmet extravaganza”! At that point … and after I told Sam and Johna that we needed to leave for our destinations the next day before 6:00 A.M. in order to get to Mass … I thought that they were going to erupt and make the 6-Day War look calm! However, when we told them we wanted to get to the Holy Sepulchre Mass for 7:00 A.M. morning Mass, and what we were going to see, they calmed down and everyone got to bed early in anticipation of the next day … Saturday. Since Johna is always the first to awake in the mornings for her shower, I gave her the alarm clock with instructions to get us all up by 5:00 A.M. (She told us the next day that at 2:30 A.M., she began waking up every hour on the hour to be sure she did not fail in her appointed duty to get us all up for fear of missing Mass … thanks, Johna!).
P.S. Now you might understand how I felt this morning…….after having written this Trip Report, tried to finish this morning (Sunday) to get it out to all of you and all of a sudden IT DISAPPEARED OFF OF MY SCREEN! So after our return today, I began to re-write this Trip Report and Susan finally took over the typing as I dictated. enjoy!
God Bless all of you
Susan, Tom and the Kids
The Magnificat (Canticle of Mary)
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit finds joy in God my
savior; for he has looked upon His servant in her lowliness; all ages to
come shall call me blessed. God who is mighty has done great things for me,
holy is His name; His mercy is from age to age on those who fear Him. He
has shown might with His arm; He has confused the proud in their inmost
thoughts. He has deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to
high places. The hungry He has given every good thing, while the rich He has
sent empty away. He has upheld Israel his servant, ever mindful of His
mercy; Even as He promised our fathers, promised Abraham and His descendants
May God Bless Each and Every One Of You!
Tom & Susan Melillo
Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418 (USA)