Retracing Christ’s footsteps from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and passing through Palestine

The author touches the Silver Star at the Church of Nativity marking the very spot where the Messiah was born

The author touches the Silver Star at the Church of Nativity marking the very spot where the Messiah was born

A Filipino priest leads a short Mass and candle lighting at an altar inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

A Filipino priest leads a short Mass and candle lighting at an altar inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

By Wendell Gaa

Visiting the Holy Land was a lifetime goal of mine since college, and a part of my heart and soul felt fulfilled on a spiritual, emotional and intellectual level after I finally achieved that objective this year.

Having been born a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church denomination, my trip to Israel brought so much more historical resonance on my faith after visiting some of the most notable sites which witnessed important chapters in the life of Jesus Christ the Messiah.

After crossing some thorough border security checkpoints from Jordan, it took us merely 30 minutes to travel to the holy city of Jerusalem. Our tour guide, thanks to Philippine Ambassador to Israel Generoso Calonge (now Consul General to Chicago), felt that our first stop in exploring the life of Christ was in Jerusalem itself.

We walked through the cobbled streets of the Old City right through to the Christian Quarter, where we got our first sight of the famed Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This historic religious building happens to be one of the holiest sites in all of Christendom, as it is said to stand on the actual biblical Hill of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. The Church was constructed during the 3rd century AD and has been restored and rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century to how it appears today. We learned that it is currently controlled by three major Christian denominations: the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Church. Coptic, Ethiopian and Orthodox Syrian Christian congregations also regularly perform religious rites here.

As we walked through the front entrance to the Church, a single door in the south transept, we saw that although the exterior was less artistically and architecturally imposing than cathedrals in other nations which I’ve seen, this very much belied the historic and religious significance of this building. I even read on how Christian tradition holds it that the bones of Adam, the first man, are buried right here!

We entered and saw how the church décor everywhere was akin to some of the mosaic/renaissance artistic and religious designs which I’ve seen in a few other cathedrals in Europe. We could see a few priests wearing their religious robes that were presumably Orthodox style who were directing several pilgrims and tourists to walk towards the south side of an altar via an aisle surrounding the end of the church choir, to a stairway leading up to the Altar of the Crucifixion, or Calvary, which is the traditional Crucifixion site of Christ. It is little wonder that this was the most highly adorned area of the Church.

Although the wait along the queue leading to Calvary was long, it was worth it to finally approach the altar and see the very rock encased under a glass on both sides of the altar, which is said to be the exact spot where Christ’s cross was raised.

After a few minutes of paying our reverential respects at the Altar, we moved down to view the Stone of Anointing just right near the church entrance as we exited. This long oblong-shaped stone table is the traditional spot where Christ’s body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea.

The next day, Ambassador Calonge’s wife Madame Gloria was generous enough to accompany us together with some other visiting friends. The driver took us to a security checkpoint right before we entered the Palestinian West Bank, which is where the biblical city of Bethlehem is located. As we drove through Palestine, I observed how the neighborhoods here were not necessarily impoverished, but noticeably less upscale than the more contemporary Europeanized residential and commercial Israeli buildings. Save for a few high fenced walls constructed along the security checkpoint from where we crossed over from Israel territory, I didn’t detect any simmering social or political tension while traveling through Palestinian territory, at least not on the surface.

We then came upon the Church of Nativity, which was built over the traditional site of the very cave where Christ was born. Near the church entrance, we were greeted by a kindly Palestinian Christian who toured us throughout the Church. He explained how construction of the basilica was originally authorized in 327 AD by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother St. Helena.

While the Church has undergone numerous reconstructions throughout the past centuries, its religious relevance to both Christians and Muslims has remained strongly intact.

We then came upon the highlight spot of the Church at the Grotto of Nativity, which is a 14-point silver star imbedded on a ground beneath an altar, marking the very spot where the Messiah was born. Touching the star was obviously a climactic moment for me, and our guide would later explain how the Church of the Nativity was the first in Palestine to be designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. We also later learned that UNESCO had included the Church on its List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

Quite honestly, I didn’t sense any outward threat to the Church as we were touring there, although our guide together with his other friend, also a Palestinian Christian living in Bethlehem, told us that many native Christians who were originally from Palestine and other regions throughout the Middle East had exiled themselves to settle in other countries due to ongoing political and religious violence, and more nowadays, the looming threat posed by the terror group ISIS. To think that the very land which gave rise to a faith which now sees too fewer followers living within its own area is tragic indeed, and I can only pray for more peace and stability in a region which is so badly in need of it.

Former Ambassador Willy and Linda Gaa lean in to touch the stone table on the traditional spot where Christ’s body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea

Former Ambassador Willy and Linda Gaa lean in to touch the stone table on the traditional spot where Christ’s body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea

Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre



One Comment

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