Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria … Part 5

Located adjacent to the Church of the Nativity is Bethlehem’s Catholic parish, Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. You may have seen it before when Christmas Eve services are televised from Bethlehem around the world.

This beautiful church shares a wall with the Church of the Nativity. The current structure was built in 1882 on top of the ruins of a Crusader church and monastery that belonged to the Augustinians.

Common wall between Church of the Nativity and Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria

 

This cloister is between the Church of the Nativity and the Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (notice the statue of St Jerome)

While we did not see it, the church also stands atop a two-room cave where St Jerome, a Dalmatian-born priest (c.347-420), translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. His translation was called the Vulgate, the authoritative version of the Bible for Catholics until the 20th century.

St Jerome is the person responsible for the Vulgate, the translation of the Bible Catholics used until the 20th century. Notice the oranges! A member of our tour group picked a few for his family. They smelled delicious!
A statue honoring the roots from the era of the Crusaders

The Church

Entering the Church of Saint Catherine
Massive and beautiful doors leading into the Church of Saint Catherine
Beautiful chapel at Church of Saint Catherine
Close-up of the Stained Glass above the pipe organ in the Church of St Catherine
A beautiful stained glass window above the doors in the Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem
A memorial honoring the birth of Jesus in the Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem

Who Was Saint Catherine?

I had not ever heard of Saint Catherine before my visit to Bethlehem. With the beautiful church that honors her built right beside the Church of the Nativity, I wanted to know more about her.

Statue of Saint Catherine. Notice the wheel she holds in her hand.

Apparently, Saint Catherine was a 4th-century Christian martyr hailing from Egypt. She was said to have been well-educated and a princess who became a Christian at around the age of 14. From that time until she was martyred at the age of 18, she is believed to have won many people over to Christianity.

Legend has it that she challenged the emperor Maxentius for persecuting Christians and for worshipping false gods. Enraged, the emperor threw her into prison where she was beaten until blood ran from her in streams.

Catherine steadfastly refused to show that she was in pain. Instead, she is said to have stood her ground with her eyes raised to Heaven, celebrating her Lord. In prison, legend says that angels rubbed her wounds with salve while a dove from Heaven fed her. It is believed the Christ visited her in her cell, encouraging her to keep up the brave fight.

While she was in prison, hundreds visited her and were converted to Christianity, including the wife of emperor Maxentius. They were all put to death for their newfound faith.

Oddly, after Maxentius was unable to break Catherine’s will by torture or starvation, he proposed marriage to her. She refused, telling him that her spouse was Jesus Christ to whom she had consecrated her virginity.

Furious, Maxentius ordered her to be tortured using an execution wheel. Usually reserved for murderers or robbers, execution by the wheel was slow and excruciatingly painful. The convict was first tied down to the floor, then a wheel that had spikes in it, designed to mutilate the body, was dropped on them.

However, when Catherine touched the wheel, it broke. Spared of dying the long and painful death by the wheel, she was instead beheaded. Rather than blood, it is said that a milk-like substance flowed out of her neck. Legend says that her body was subsequently carried by angels to Mount Sinai.

Both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics honor Saint Catherine as a saint. She is considered a Great Martyr by the Eastern Orthodox Church and one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers by Roman Catholics.

(I relied on information found here to tell the story of Saint Catherine.)

 

Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7

 

 

Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4

Church of the Nativity – an Incredible Structure

A highlight of the tour through Israel (and Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank and under Palestinian rule) was a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church, thought to be the oldest operating church in the world, was originally built by Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great. The first church was dedicated in AD 339.

The original church was destroyed. It was rebuilt in the 6th century by Emporer Justinian (who reigned 527–565) and is largely the same today. The church that covers the cave where Jesus was born is magnificent in size and decor.

The Church of the Nativity is interesting in that it is home to three different religions: Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox. A Muslim holds the black wrought iron key to the church. Originally, Muslims were commissioned to hold the key to keep the peace among the three Christian religions using the church.

Getting ready for the procession. When we arrived, one church service was ending and another was beginning. We had to wait reverently for the services to end before we were allowed to enter the Nativity Grotto.
Notice the Crusader paintings of saints at the top of many of the columns. The red limestone columns were quarried locally all those centuries ago. Trap doors in the floor give glimpses of the mosaic floor of Constantine’s basilica.

As you can see, the Church today features no pews; its interior is mostly dark and cold and huge. You feel quite small when you stand there waiting your turn to go through the 1.2 meters high door that takes you into the cave where Jesus was born. Except for the front of the church, which is quite ornate, the only decorations are Crusader-era paintings on the massive columns, wall mosaics near the ceiling of the massive structure, and the chandeliers that hang along the columns.


The picture above, hopefully, gives you an idea of just how massive the church really is. You can see how tall the pillars are compared to an average human’s size.

I really didn’t notice it while visiting the Church of the Nativity, but it is said that the church has fallen into some disrepair over the years. Apparently, politics from way back during the Ottoman Empire have prevented significant renovations from occurring for over five centuries.

Fortunately, beginning in 2013, $15 million (US) has been invested into fixing the church’s roof to keep it from falling in and to make other needed repairs to the walls and mosaics. Among the repairs is the restoration of the intricate mosaics in the church. The 12th-century mosaics, made of gold and silver leaf with mother of pearl, had been covered with soot and grime accumulated over the centuries. An Italian team was commissioned to painstakingly restore their grandeur a few years ago.

I found it quite sad that some visitors to the Church of the Nativity feel it is appropriate to desecrate it. There is graffiti on many of the stately columns lining the church. I honestly don’t know what is wrong with people.

How sad is it that the church is desecrated by graffiti?

Entering the Grotto of the Nativity

To get to the Grotto of the Nativity, you must descend steep and narrow stairs after bending to enter the doorway that is slightly less than 4 foot high. The only doorway to the Grotto is cut into a massive wall and is purposefully low. It was lowered around the year 1500 to keep looters from driving their carts into the holy spot.

Unfortunately, I did not get many pictures while in the cave. It is only about 39 feet x 10 feet and was very crowded. We were rushed to look and get out. If I ever take another Holy Land tour, I will spend more time celebrating the birth of my Savior while in the Grotto of the Nativity, regardless of how crowded or rushed we are.

Mural over the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born
My friend Sherry is touching the spot where it is said that Mary gave birth to Jesus.
The spot where tradition says Jesus was born is memorialized by the 14-point silver star.
After a serious fire in 1869, the walls of the cave where Jesus was born were covered with heavy leather drapes that are backed with asbestos. On Feast Days, the cave is lit by 48 hanging lamps.

 

Luke 2:4-7

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

We descended a few more steep steps to see where it is believed Jesus was laid in his manger bed. This tiny spot was even more crowded. The pictures below were hastily taken of where the manger where the baby Jesus slept is believed to have been.

I looked so quickly that I don’t even remember much about the manger except that I had to climb down several steep stairs that had no railing and it was very, very crowded.


I found it interesting that a statue of the crucifixion was featured in the manger.

I have read that the rock in the Grotto of the Manger is the original rock from when Jesus was born. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of it and don’t even remember seeing it.

The manger in the Grotto is built to match the dimensions of feeding troughs that were cut into the rock by Bedouins back in Jesus’ day. If you want to see a picture, there is one here.

Last Words about the Grotto fo the Nativity

I have to qualify some of my statements. I believe Jesus may have been born in this cave that we saw beneath the Church of the Nativity. I believe he slept in a manger bed, just as the Bible says He did. I do not personally believe that any of us know exactly where Mary gave birth to Him or exactly where the manger stood. I have a little difficulty honoring exact spots that humans have decided are THE spots where historical events occurred over 2000 years ago.

With that said, it does not matter to me if the spots I saw in Bethlehem are the exact spots where my Savior was born. I’ve even seen some reports that say the Palestinian Bethlehem isn’t even the Bethlehem where Jesus was born. I don’t care. What matters to me is that He was born, He lived, He died on the cross for me and you, and He was resurrected three days later.

Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7

 

Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1

Making the Decision for a Trip of a Lifetime

In late August 2018, I made the decision to accompany my friend and fellow Stage IV lung cancer survivor on a trip of a lifetime for me – a journey to the land of my Saviour. I have never cared much about overseas travel, but I have always wanted to visit the Holy Land. I couldn’t imagine walking exactly where Jesus walked. When Karen needed a travel partner, I jumped at the opportunity to go with her to Israel.

Mural above the place where Jesus was born

Since I had never traveled overseas, there was much to do, including getting a passport. This task ended up being more difficult than I originally imagined because the passport office required a different type of birth certificate than I had so I had to order another. I was nervous that I wouldn’t get the correct birth certificate and then the passport in time to make the trip, but that was a worry I need not have had. The passport arrived in good shape months before we actually left for our trip in January 2019.

I am not typically a worrier, to say the least, but suddenly I was fretting over everything. What should I take? Do I have the correct bags or should I buy more? What will I wear? What shoes should I take? Karen and my husband Robert both reminded me that there were stores in Israel should I forget anything, but I wanted to be sure I had everything.

Words of hindsight are that, yes, there are plenty of stores in Jerusalem and other sites in Israel, but getting to them is not as easy as you might think. Our tour kept us very busy and didn’t include stopping by shopping malls. Without a walk or a taxi ride, a shopping expedition would not be possible. And, after a full day of touring, this old lady was tired. In other words, my worries about thinking of everything, in my opinion, were justified.

This post is really long. It probably won’t be very interesting to most people, but I wish I had seen something like it when I was preparing for my first-ever trip overseas and to the Holy Land.

Planning for the trip

So, let’s take a look at what I took … and what I didn’t take that I wish I did.

What I wish I had taken:

  • a bathing suit
  • swim shoes

These items would have been useful at the Jordan River (Yardenit) where believers can be baptized and at the Dead Sea where you float, whether you want to or not, because of the high salt content. Because I didn’t take a bathing suit (or, at least, a t-shirt and shorts that I could change out of), I did not partake in the baptism or the Dead Sea adventure. If I go again, I will be sure to pack something to wear for these activities first.

  • A pair of good walking shoes or boots.

I bought new and comfortable shoes (Skechers) that I love, but much of where we walked was uneven. Because it rained a lot while we were in Israel, many of the uneven surfaces were also wet. I wished for tennis shoes or hiking boots that had more structure and more sole than my comfy Skechers afforded.

  • A cane

I have never used a cane in my life and hope it is quite some time before I need one regularly. However, many steep steps, often wet, without the benefit of handrails made me wish for a cane to use as a third leg. They make fold-up canes and if I go again, I will likely take one along. If it never gets used, great! But, it would be a comfort to have it available.

  • A knit hat and scarf and warm gloves

These items wouldn’t take up much room or add much weight, but they sure would come in handy on those days when the temperature dropped into the 20s or 30s and the wind galed.

What I took that I didn’t need:

  • Too many pairs of inadequate shoes. As I noted above, I took comfy Skechers shoes – three pairs of them. I was glad I had two of those pair since one pair got very, very wet in the torrential rain that came the first day we were there. I never took the third pair out of their bag. Again, I wish one of the pair of shoes that I took had been hiking boots or structured tennis shoes.
  • Too many pants and tops. I thought I was going to get really dirty while touring so I insisted on taking a fresh pair of slacks or jeans or leggings for every single day. And then, for good measure, I threw in a couple of extra pair. Since I had them, I wore different pants every day, but that was unnecessary. It added a lot of weight to my suitcases. I could have easily worn the same pair of pants at least twice.

Likewise, I took more tops and covers than needed. I ended up using a multi-colored, warm sweater several different times. I didn’t need t-shirts/blouses that each had their own matching cover or sweater.

Israel in the winter is not unlike Dallas, where I live. Some days it is warm and sunny, where shirt sleeves are all you need. Other days are bitter cold and you need a warm hat, scarf, gloves, and coat. We had both kinds of weather when we were there. So, it is important to take both warm and cool clothes.

  • Bottles of pills – anti-diarrhea, anti-gas, aspirin … I took brand new bottles of all three. They remain unopened. It was nice insurance to have them, but I could have combined several of each into one pill bottle or pill keeper and saved the space taken by three separate bottles.
  • My own metal water bottle. While I enjoyed having my insulated water bottle while traveling to NYC, I never used it again on the trip. It just took up space and added weight to my luggage.
  • A travel pillow and blanket. I bought a nifty memory-foam travel pillow that folds into its own bag. I was really proud of my purchase and was anxious to try it out on the long airplane ride to Tel Aviv. It ended up being too big. I could never get comfortable with it. It was so big and unwieldy that it gave me fits. If I wasn’t such a tightwad, I should have just left it in Israel instead of continuing to drag it around with me. I doubt I will ever try to use it again.

I took a $5 blanket, 50X60, along. I had read that you wouldn’t want to use the blanket provided by the airlines because the cleanliness would be questionable. Well, the blanket and pillow we received to use were in plastic bags and I didn’t worry about their cleanliness. I did cover up with my blanket in the room in Jerusalem, but I could have used the extra blanket in the room and saved my space and weight.

  • Bluetooth keyboard. I took a Bluetooth keyboard for my tablet. I never got it out of the bag. Now, it didn’t take up much space and added minimal weight, so I would likely take it again, but I didn’t ever use it while gone.

The Necessities

What I took that I am glad I had:

  • A raincoat with a hood. This jacket was easy to stuff into small spaces and was worn multiple times, sometimes to keep me dry and sometimes to keep my warm and sometimes for both.
  • An umbrella. I took a very small umbrella that easily fit into my purse. Again, we had quite a bit of rain during our visit to Israel so the umbrella was a handy tool to have available.
  • Compression socks. I am not sure the credit goes to the compression socks I bought and wore for much of the trip, but I had no problem with my legs or ankles or feet swelling while on my trip, including during the very long airplane rides.
  • Comfortable shoes. As I have mentioned, I wish I had taken a pair of hiking boots, but I am also glad that I had a pair of comfy, lightweight Skechers with their memory foam.
  • A warm sweater that blended with nearly everything I wore. I could have left a number of “covers” (sweaters, flannel shirts, etc.) at home and simply used the same sweater again and again. I loved the sweater I took, but I wish it had had pockets. Most of the clothes I took didn’t seem to have pockets and I really missed having them.
  • Short-sleeved and long-sleeved tops. Some days were warm and a short-sleeved top was plenty, especially when topped with the sweater that could easily be taken off if needed. Other days were bitter cold so long sleeves definitely felt good!
  • Slacks, leggings, jeans. I took too many pairs. I enjoyed leggings, especially on the long plane rides. Jeans were nice because they had pockets and were warmer than leggings (even though I took some that were fleece-lined.) I could have gotten by with two or three pairs of leggings (which take up little space and add minimal weight) and a pair or two of jeans. Instead, I took multiple pairs of slacks and jeans.
  • A good camera and lots of batteries and memory cards. I am a picture taker. I take lots and lots and lots of pictures (over 10,000 while I was on my 9-day tour, two of which were simply travel days). I went through three memory cards since I was recording my memories in JPEG and RAW. I took four batteries; two would have been enough.
  • A good adapter to use to charge electronics in the room. I bought one that had four USB ports and the capability of plugging in a separate charger. It worked like a dream.
  • A portable battery charger. I bought one that was perhaps too big and too heavy, but I used it daily to keep my phone charged so that I could take pictures everywhere we went.
  • Earphones. I, unfortunately, lost my over-the-ear earphones I took sometimes during our trip to Israel. I think they fell out of my bag on the plane between JFK and Warsaw. At any rate, while I had them, they were great. They kept out much of the plane noise so I was able to watch the Netflix movies I had downloaded onto my tablet during the very long, very cramped, very boring plane ride across the ocean from America. I really missed having them after losing them and considered buying more at the airport. I decided to suck it up and wait to buy some from Amazon – I don’t need name-brand, expensive earphones like I would have had to buy at the airport.
  • Tablet. I didn’t use my tablet a lot, but I certainly used it enough to justify taking it. I mostly watched movies on it, but I used it to access Facebook or email a time or two. I thought I might use it to take pictures, too, but ended up just using my Sony camera and Samsung Note 8 for that task.
  • Plenty of charging cords! I often had four plugged into the adapter. I charged my phone, tablet, camera, and portable battery all at the same time.
  • A nice travel purse. I bought a nice-sized lightweight purse that had RFID blocking and straps that couldn’t easily be slashed. It had pockets that locked closed and some that didn’t and that were easily accessible. I really fell in love with the purse and will continue to carry it even when I’m not traveling. It has pockets on each side for an umbrella and a water bottle.
  • A bigger bag that the travel purse, jacket, tablet, etc. fits into. I bought a big leather bag that I could stuff everything I might need during the day’s tour into. I always left it on the tour bus but never worried about not having everything I might need while away from the hotel.
  • Prescription meds. I bought small containers at Walmart to carry enough of my prescription medications for the trip.
  • Lotions, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant etc. My skin is very dry so I use special lotion/cream that I took along in small containers. Every hotel where we stayed provided soap, shampoo (and sometimes conditioner), and body lotion. Every hotel provided a hair dryer, too. If you want to take along a curling iron, you will need to get an adapter specifically for high voltage tools. The adapter I bought to charge electronics would not work for a curling iron.

Last words

When and if I ever go again, I will try to keep my rolling, checked bag to a weight of no more than 40 pounds. My backpack, I hope to keep under 20 or 25 pounds.

In my backpack, I put three changes of clothes, pajamas, and necessities. In the event my checked bag had been lost, I would have been situated for several days while, hopefully, my lost bag was found. Leggings and tops didn’t take up much space or add much weight but gave me confidence that I would be okay if my big bag took a while to arrive. As it turns out, all luggage made the same trip I did!

Well, congratulations if you are still reading this! It is quite lengthy, but I tried to cover everything in one spot regarding what to take and what not to take. It was difficult navigating so many different moves with as much weight as I took along. Next time, I will have plenty, but not too much!

Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7