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Monastery of St Gerasimus

West Bank

Monastery of St Gerasimus (Bukvoed)

Monastery of St Gerasimus (Bukvoed)

The Monastery of St Gerasimus, one of the earliest of the 70-plus monasteries in the Judaean desert, is named in honour of a pioneering monk who is usually depicted with a pet lion.

A verdant and welcoming oasis in the arid lower Jordan Valley, it is on the east side of highway 90 just north of the Beit-Ha’aravah junction, and about 7 kilometres southeast of Jericho.

Across the Jordan River is the place of Jesus’ baptism, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, but the two-storey monastery commemorates an earlier event in Jesus’ life.

According to an old tradition, the monastery was built where Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus took shelter in a cave while fleeing from Herod the Great.

This event is commemorated in the ground-floor crypt beneath the monastery church. An icon illustrates the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and a large painting depicts a contented Jesus being nursed at the breast by his mother Mary.

Fresco of St Gerasimus with his lion (Bukvoed)

Fresco of St Gerasimus with his lion (Bukvoed)

The upper-floor church contains many holy icons and frescoes, including paintings of Gerasimus and his lion. Cabinets in the crypt store the bones of monks killed during the Persian invasion of 614.

 

Hospitable place for pilgrims

A place of hospitality and refreshment for pilgrims, with fruit trees, flowers and birdsong, the gold-domed monastery offers a contrast to the hot and barren environment of the Judaean wilderness.

Founded in the fifth century, it was originally dedicated to Our Lady of Kalamon (Greek for reeds), but was later renamed in honour of Gerasimus, who founded a nearby monastery that had been abandoned.

It was destroyed in 614, rebuilt by the Crusaders, abandoned after the Crusader period, restored in the 12th century, rebuilt in 1588, destroyed around 1734 and re-established in 1885.

In Arabic it is known as Deir Hajla, meaning the monastery of the partridge, a bird common to the area.

Cloister in Monastery of St Gerasimus (© Deror Avi)

Cloister in Monastery of St Gerasimus (© Deror Avi)

The monastery functioned in the form of a laura — with a cluster of hermits’ caves located around a community and worship centre. The hermits spent weekdays alone in their caves, occupied in prayer and making ropes and baskets. They went to the centre for Saturdays and Sundays, taking their handiwork and partaking in Divine Liturgy and communal activities.

The monastic rule was strict. During the week the hermit monks survived on dry bread, dates and water. At the weekends they ate cooked food and drank wine. Their only personal belongings were a rush mat and a drinking bowl.

Hermits’ caves can still be seen in the steep cliffs a kilometre east of the monastery and in the adjacent mountains.

 

Gerasimus redeveloped monastic life

Like many who founded Judaean monasteries, Gerasimus (also spelt Gerassimos or Gerasimos) came from outside the Holy Land — from a wealthy family in Lycia, in present-day Turkey.

Already a monk when he came to Palestine, he followed the monastic leader Euthymius into the desert and became renowned for his piety and asceticism.

Because of the similarity of names, Gerasimus is sometimes confused with St Jerome, the Bible translator who lived in Bethlehem.

Gerasimus is credited with a new development in monastic life. Previously desert monks lived either in caves or in monasteries. He was the first to combine the solitude of a wilderness hermit with the communal aspect of a monastery by bringing hermits together on Saturdays and Sundays for worship and fellowship.

Upper part of iconostasis in monastery church (© Deror Avi)

Upper part of iconostasis in monastery church (© Deror Avi)

He is believed to have attended the crucial Council of Chalcedon in 451, which caused a major rift in the Eastern Orthodox world.

Called to settle differences of opinion on the nature of Christ, the council declared that he has two natures in one Person as truly God and truly man. Gerasimus briefly opposed this declaration, then accepted it.

The lion depicted in icons of Gerasimus comes from a story that he found the animal wandering in the desert, suffering from a thorn embedded in a paw. The saint gently removed the thorn and tended to the wound.

The lion thereafter devoted himself to Gerasimus, serving him and the monastery and retrieving the monastery’s donkey when it was stolen by thieves.

The story has it that when Gerasimus died in 475 the lion lay on his grave and died of grief.

 

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Tel.: 02 9943038 or 050 348892

Open: 8am-6pm daily

 

 

 

References

Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Irving, Sarah: Palestine (Bradt Travel Guides, 2011)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Rossing, Daniel: Between Heaven and Earth: Churches and Monasteries of the Holy Land (Penn Publishing, 2012)

 

External links

St. Gerassimos (BibleWalks)
The Monasteries of the “Desert of the Jordan” (Christus Rex)

St Jerome’s Cave

West Bank

Glossary

St Jerome, detail, by Marinus van Reymerswaele, c.1490-c.1546 (Wikimedia)

From a cave beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem came the most enduring version of the Bible ever translated.

In this underground study — pleasantly cool in summer but chilly in winter — St Jerome spent 30 years translating the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.

The scholarly Dalmatian priest began his task around AD 386. The text he produced in St Jerome’s Cave was the first official vernacular version of the Bible. Known as the Vulgate, it remained the authoritative version for Catholics until the 20th century.

This version, asserts the historian G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, was “assuredly heard by more Christians than any other”.

St Jerome (also known as Hieronymus, the Latin version of Jerome) spent more than 36 years in the Holy Land. He was well-known for his ascetic lifestyle and his passionate involvement in doctrinal controversies.

 

Bethlehem was a monastic centre

St Jerome's Cave

Chapel in St Jerome’s Cave (Seetheholyland.net)

Access to St Jerome’s two-room cave is from the Church of St Catherine. On the right hand side of the nave, steps lead down to a complex of subterranean chambers. At the end, on the right, are the rooms where Jerome lived and worked.

The adjacent caves have been identified as the burial places of Jerome (whose remains were later taken to Rome), his successor St Eusebius, and Sts Paula and Eustochium.

Paula, a noble Roman widow, and her daughter, Eustochium, worked with Jerome in making Bethlehem a great monastic centre.

The first cave on the left at the bottom of the stairs is identified as the Chapel of the Holy Innocents. This is said to be the burial place of infants killed by King Herod in his attempt to eliminate the newborn “King of the Jews”.

 

Opinion of pilgrims varied

Jerome wrote of innumerable pilgrims flocking to Bethlehem from Britain and India, Pontus (a part of Asia Minor, now in Turkey) and Ethiopia.

St Jerome's Cave

St Jerome with skull at his feet, outside St Catherine’s Church (David Niblack)

His opinion of them fluctuated, as shown by two conflicting statements:

• “The very best of the Christian community comes to the Holy Land; they speak different tongues, but the devotion is one and the same. There is no sign of conflict or arrogance, no differentiation whatsoever, except in the mode of dress. No one censures another, no one criticises or judges his neighbour.”

• “They come here from all over the world, the city regurgitates every type of human being; and there is an awful crush of persons of both sexes who in other places you should avoid at least in part but here you have to stomach them to the full.”

Jerome died in 420. His body was later transferred to Constantinople and then to Rome, where his bones rest today in the Basilica of St Mary Major.

In front of the Church of St Catherine, his statue stands on a granite column in a restored Crusader cloister. At his feet is a skull, a symbol of the transience of human existence.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Field of Ruth

Tomb of Rachel

Herodium

In Scripture:

Massacre of the Holy Innocents: Matthew 2:16-18

Administered by: Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land

Tel.: 972-2-2742425

Open: Apr-Sep 6.30am-7.30pm, Oct-Mar 5.30am-5pm (grottos closed on Sunday mornings)

 

References

Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Joseph, Frederick: “Bethlehem”, Holy Land, winter 2002
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Saltet, Louis: “St. Jerome”: The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Company, 1910)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

St Jerome (Catholic Encyclopedia)
Jerome (Wikipedia)

Grotto of the Nativity

West Bank

Grotto of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity (Darko Tepert)

Far from the Christmas-card image, the place of Christ’s birth is a dimly-lit rock cave. Instead of a star above, a 14-point silver star on the marble floor of the Grotto of the Nativity bears the words “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est” (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary).

Entry is from Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Steps to the right of the iconostasis (the carved screen standing in front of the main altar) lead down to the subterranean cave.

Rectangular in shape, the cave measures about 12 metres by 3 metres. Like the church above, it is in the possession of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The rough rock of the first Christmas has given way to marble facings and, in the words of biblical scholar E. M. Blaiklock, the cave is “hung and cluttered with all the tinsel of men’s devotions”.

On feast days the cave is lit by 48 hanging lamps. Following a serious fire in 1869, three of the walls are protected by heavy leather drapes backed with asbestos.

 

Manger covered with marble

Grotto of the Nativity

Grotto of the Manger (Seetheholyland.net)

At a slightly lower level is the Grotto of the Manger. The rock shelf has been covered with marble, but the original rock may be seen around the manger. The dimensions match those of feeding troughs cut into the rock by Bedouins.

When the original church was built in the 4th century, the Grotto of the Nativity was enlarged to make room for pilgrims and at that time a silver manger was installed.

St Jerome, whose own cave was nearby, did not approve: “If I could only see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as if to honour the Christ, we have removed the poor one and placed there a silver one; however, for me the one which was removed is more precious . . . .”

Grotto of the Nativity

Stone trough from the 9th century before Jesus was born, found at Megiddo (Seetheholyland.net)

A small altar in the Grotto of the Manger is dedicated to the Adoration of the Magi, the Three Wise Men described in Matthew’s Gospel as coming from the East (probably Persia) to worship the newborn Jesus. This is where the Catholics celebrate Mass.

 

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Field of Boaz

Herodium

 

In Scripture:

The birth of Jesus: Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 1:18-25

The visit of the Wise Men: Matthew 2:1-12

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Church

Tel.: 972-2-2742440

Open: Apr-Sep 6.30am-7.30pm, Oct-Mar 5.30am-5pm (grotto closed Sunday morning)

 

 

References

Blaiklock, E. M.: Eight Days in Israel (Ark Publishing, 1980)
Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Joseph, Frederick: “Bethlehem”, Holy Land, winter 2002
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Petrozzi, Maria Teresa: “The Nativity Grotto”, Holy Land, winter 1997
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Bethlehem (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Grotto of the Nativity (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Church of the Nativity (Wikipedia)

Church of the Nativity

West Bank

Church of the Nativity

Entering Church of the Nativity (Seetheholyland.net)

Entering the church that marks the site of Christ’s birthplace means having to stoop low. The only doorway in the fortress-like front wall is just 1.2 metres high.

The previous entrance to the Church of the Nativity was lowered around the year 1500 to stop looters from driving their carts in. To Christians, it seems appropriate to bow low before entering the place where God humbled himself to become man.

Today’s basilica, the oldest complete church in the Christian world, was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It replaced the original church of Constantine the Great, built over the cave venerated as Christ’s birthplace, and dedicated in AD 339.

Before Constantine, the first Christian emperor, the Romans had tried to wipe out the memory of the cave. They planted a grove dedicated to the pagan god Adonis, lover of Venus, and established his cult in the cave.

As St Jerome wrote in AD 395, “The earth’s most sacred spot was overshadowed by the grave of Adonis, and the cave where the infant Christ once wept was where the paramour of Venus was bewailed.”

 

Invading Persians spared the church

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity (Darko Tepert)

The Gospels do not say that Jesus was born in a cave, but there are written references to the Nativity cave as far back as AD 160. Even today in the Judean hills, families live in primitive houses built in front of natural caves used for storage or to shelter animals.

When the original Church of the Nativity was built, the cave was enlarged to make room for pilgrims and a silver manger was installed.

St Jerome did not approve: “If I could only see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as if to honour the Christ, we have removed the poor one and placed there a silver one; however, for me the one which was removed is more precious . . . .”

Persians invaded Palestine in 614 and destroyed many churches. They spared the Church of the Nativity when they saw a mosaic on an interior wall depicting the Three Wise Men in Persian dress.

In 1482 King Edward IV sent English oak and tons of lead to renew the roof. In the 17th century the Turks looted the lead to melt into bullets. The roof rotted and most of the rich mosaics on the walls of the nave were ruined.

When Unesco put the basilica on its list of world heritage sites in 2012, it was also deemed to be endangered because of damage due to water leaks. A $US15 million restoration of the church’s roof, walls and mosaics began in 2013.

Christmas is observed on January 7

Church of the Nativity

Columns of red limestone in Church of the Nativity (Seetheholyland.net)

Today’s Church of the Nativity is cool and dark, its interior bare with no pews. Wall mosaics from the 12th century — depicting saints, angels and Church councils — have had their original sheen restored.

The restorers even uncovered a 2-metre mosaic of an angel that had been lost for centuries.

Trapdoors in the floor allow glimpses of the mosaic floor of Constantine’s basilica. The red limestone pillars were quarried locally. Many are adorned with Crusader paintings of saints.

Steps to the right of the iconostasis (the carved screen, adorned with icons, that stands in front of the main altar) lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity.

As the ornamentation, icons and lamps in the front of the church suggest, the basilica is now almost wholly a Greek Orthodox place of worship. The Armenian Orthodox own the northern transept. The Catholics have the site of the manger and the adjoining altar next to the Nativity grotto.

So while Christians in the Western world are celebrating Christ’s birthday on December 25, the church at his birthplace still has 13 days to wait for the Orthodox observance on January 7 and a further 12 days for the Armenian Christmas.

So where does the televised Christmas Eve service come from? The adjoining Church of St Catherine of Alexandria, which is Catholic.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Field of Boaz

Herodium

In Scripture:

The birth of Jesus: Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 1:18-25

The visit of the Wise Men: Matthew 2:1-12

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Church, Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, Armenian Apostolic Church

Tel.: 972-2-2742440

Open: Apr-Sep 6.30am-7.30pm, Oct-Mar 5.30am-5pm (grotto closed Sunday morning)

 

 

 

References

Baldwin, David: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Companion (Catholic Truth Society, 2007)
Bastier, Claire, and Halloun, Nizar: “Restoration: Revealing the glories of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem”, Holy Land Review, winter 2016
Blaiklock, E. M.: Eight Days in Israel (Ark Publishing, 1980)
Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Chabin, Michele: “Church of the Nativity’s Face-Lift Reveals Ancient Treasures”, National Catholic Register, June 15, 2016
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Joseph, Frederick: “Bethlehem”, Holy Land, winter 2002
Martin, James: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Westminster Press, 1978)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

External links

Bethlehem (Obethlehem.com)
Church of the Nativity (Wikipedia)
Bethlehem (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

West Bank

Church of St Catherine

Christmas Midnight Mass in St Catherine’s Church (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The midnight Mass beamed from Bethlehem to television viewers worldwide on Christmas Eve is celebrated in the Church of St Catherine of Alexandria.

This 19th-century church adjoins the 6th-century Church of the Nativity, built over the cave where Jesus was born. It even shares a wall with the Nativity church.

The Church of St Catherine is the parish church for Bethlehem’s Catholics. It is also often used by groups of pilgrims.

 

Martyr broke torture wheel

Church of St Catherine

Christmas lighting in the courtyard of St Catherine’s Church (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

And who was St Catherine of Alexandria? Though she has been widely venerated in both East and West, there are few reliable facts about her life.

According to the traditional story, this early 4th-century martyr from Egypt was of noble birth and well educated. At the age of 18, she challenged the emperor Maxentius (or his father, the emperor Maximian) for persecuting Christians and worshipping false gods.

The enraged emperor ordered her to be tortured on a wheel — hence the term “Catherine wheel”. But when Catherine touched the wheel, it broke. She was then beheaded and tradition says angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where in the 6th century a church and monastery were built in her honour.

This latter part of the story was, however, unknown to the earliest pilgrims to the mountain. It was two or three centuries later that the story of St Catherine and the angels began to circulate.

St Catherine of Alexandria has been ranked with St Margaret and St Barbara as one of the 14 “most helpful” saints in heaven. She is also one of the saints reputed to have spoken to St Joan of Arc.

 

Complex of caves under church

Church of St Catherine

Chapel of the Holy Innocents under St Catherine’s Church (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The Bethlehem church dedicated to St Catherine was built in 1882 on the ruins of the Crusader church and monastery belonging to the Augustinians. Beneath the paving of the cloister are the foundations of an earlier monastery, possibly that of St Jerome (whose statue stands on a pedestal in the cloister).

A door in the southwest corner of the cloister leads to a Crusader chapel. The chapel walls are decorated with remnants of Crusader wall paintings, which were partially restored in 1950.

A narrow stairway on the right hand side of the nave leads down into a complex of caves and rock-cut chambers.

These contain a number of chapels. They include the Cave of St Jerome, who translated the Vulgate version of the Bible; St Joseph’s Chapel, recalling the dream in which an angel warned Joseph to take the Holy Family to Egypt; and the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the children massacred by Herod.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Field of Boaz

Herodium

In Scripture:

An angel warns Joseph: Matthew 2:13-15

Massacre of the Holy Innocents: Matthew 2:16-18

Administered by: Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land

Tel.: 972-2-2742425

Open: Apr-Sep 6am-7.30pm, Oct-Mar 5.30am-5pm (grottos closed on Sunday mornings)

 

References:

Doyle, Stephen: The Pilgrim’s New Guide to the Holy Land (Liturgical Press, 1990)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Restoration of St Catherine’s Church at Bethlehem (Christus Rex)
Bethlehem (Obethlehem.com)
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