Sacred sites of the Christmas story

| Father Michael Van Sloun | December 13, 2011 | 0 Comments

Take an Advent journey through the Holy Land

The Incarnation is one of the greatest and most profound mysteries of our faith. The story of Jesus’ birth is told in the infancy narrative, the first two chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, and remembered at a number of sacred sites in the Holy Land.

The Temple in Jerusalem

Model of Temple at Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The story of Jesus’ birth begins in the Temple with the announcement to Zechariah of the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25).

A replica of the Temple can be seen at the Israel Museum on the outskirts of Jeru­salem with the Shrine of the Book and portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display inside and a quarter-acre scale-model depiction of the Temple and the first-century city of Jerusalem on display outside.

What to do:

Zechariah entered the sanctuary to burn incense while the people were outside praying (Luke 1:9,10).

Of all the ways to prepare for Christmas, prayer stands at the forefront. Pray at Sunday Mass at the minimum and at weekday Mass if possible. Pray before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration. Pray around the Advent wreath at home. Pray by reading and reflecting upon Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives. Pray alone as Zechariah prayed in solitude in the sanctuary.


Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth.

Nazareth is the site of the Annunciation. The largest modern church in the Holy Land is the Basilica of the Annunciation. It has both an upstairs church and a lower level grotto chapel, and the cave behind the grotto altar is revered as the place where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary (Luke 1:26).

The Church of St. Joseph next door is the place where an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 1:20), where Joseph took Mary into his home (Matthew 1:24), and where the Holy Family lived together after they returned from Egypt (Matthew 2:23).

What to do:

When Gabriel announced Jesus’ birth, Mary replied obediently, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary put God’s will ahead of her own.

The Christmas rush is a very dangerous time. It’s easy for our priorities to get out of line, for our lives to get out of balance. Jesus comes first. Jesus is the reason for the season. Our aim should be to please Jesus at all times, particularly in the days before we commemorate his birth.

Slow down. Take some deep breaths. Maintain balance. Eat and drink in moderation. Get enough rest. Spend a reasonable amount on gifts. Enjoy socializing. Be cheerful and complimentary. Have good things to say about ­others.

Nazareth is the home of the Holy Family, the place where Jesus spent his youth with his parents, Mary and Joseph. It’s good for families to spend time together at home in the days before Christmas. Togetherness is the goal. Decorate the tree together. Wrap presents together. Bake cookies together. Clean the house together. Watch a movie together. Share meals and snacks together. Visit the grandparents or relatives together. And, try to get along with each other when together.

Ein Karem

Church of St. John the Baptist, Ein Karem.

The story continues in Ein Karem, a village southwest of Jerusalem that has two picturesque churches.

The Church of the Visitation is at the top of a hill on one side of the valley. The upper level commemorates the tender encounter between the Blessed Mother Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45), and the lower level contains the Rock of Concealment, the place where, according to tradition, Elizabeth set baby John the Baptist during the massacre of the Holy Innocents (Matthew 2:16-18). The rock surrounded and hid the Baptist when the soldiers arrived to kill boys 2 and under, and reopened and returned him to Elizabeth once they departed.

Across the valley is the Church of St. John the Baptist, the birthplace of John as well as the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. The courtyards at the entrances to both churches are decorated with ornate plaques with the text of two special prayers in a variety of languages: the Magnificat or Mary’s Canticle (Luke 1:46-55) at the first church and the Benedictus, or Zechariah’s Canticle (Luke 1:68-79), at the second.

What to do:

Mary traveled to Ein Karem to help her elderly relative Elizabeth with her household chores. Most of us know someone who is older, homebound, sick, disabled or troubled and unable to do their duties. It would be a priceless gift to run an errand, fix something or complete a difficult job for them. Jesus wants us to lift a finger to help carry the heavy burdens that others have to carry (see Matthew 23:4; Luke 11:46).

Elizabeth told Mary, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These words are part of the Hail Mary.

Advent is a perfect time to pray the rosary, particularly the Joyful Mysteries. In the Liturgy of the Hours, Zechariah’s Canticle is recited as part of Morning Prayer and the Magnificat as part of Evening Prayer. It is important to bookend our days with prayer when we get up in the morning and before we go to bed at night.


Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus, the principal site of the infancy narrative.

The Church of the Nativity is the oldest church in the Holy Land, built at the direction of the Emperor Justinian in the early sixth century AD. The birth crypt is below the main altar, the cave or stable revered as the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus (Luke 2:7). There is a star on the floor that commemorates the visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:2) with the Latin inscription “Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est” (“Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born”).

Other Bethlehem sites

The Church of St. Catherine is next to the Church of the Nativity, a Latin Rite or Roman Catholic Church where the Latin Patriarch celebrates the midnight Mass that is telecast worldwide every year.

Shepherds’ Field Church, Bethlehem.

Manger Square is the plaza outside both churches where pilgrims gather to pray and sing carols.

The Milk Grotto is a small church south of the Church of the Nativity that honors the place where the Blessed Mother nursed the infant Jesus and where Joseph received the dream to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14).

The Shepherds’ Field Church is just outside of Bethlehem and commemorates the appearance of the angel of the Lord who announced the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:8-14). There are two caves where shepherds kept their sheep that have been converted into chapels, as well as a number of outdoor altars, all where Mass or prayer services can be conducted to celebrate the birth of Christ.

What to do:

We must be sure that there is room in our inn (see Luke 2:7b), that we welcome the Christ child into our hearts. We honor Jesus when we attend Mass on Christmas Eve, at midnight or on Christmas day. We also can watch Mass on TV with the pope from St. Peter’s Vatican Basilica in Rome or with the Latin Patriarch from Bethlehem.

We make Christmas a holy day when we put up a crèche or crib scene, sing Christmas carols, listen to spiritual Christmas music, say “Merry Christmas,” and give witness that we are his disciples by our love for others (see John 13:35).

Photos by Father Michael Van Sloun, pastor of St. Stephen in Anoka.

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