The Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, a hidden gem behind the Church of Nativity
Most of the tourist groups that used to come to Bethlehem focus on visiting the Church of the Nativity, that was built over the location that has been appointed as the birth place of Jesus since early Christianity. Sometimes they would also continue down to Beit Sahour to visit the Shepherds fields where the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. But rarely do these groups visit another very beautiful church and interesting location that is just a five minutes walk from the Church of Nativity and that is the Milk Grotto church.
It is located in the, you can guess it, the Milk Grotto street! And the walk up to the church is already worthwhile because you pass one of the oldest parts of the city with several beautiful old buildings dating back to the early Ottoman time. There are several good souvenir shops AND some very good olive wood workshops where you can see craftsmen at work. If you want to know more about Palestinian olive wood crafting then listen back to episode 20 of season 2.
The Milk Grotto church is yet another church that commemorates and important story from the Bible. And as usual in Palestine the story is related to a CAVE! (and if you are a frequent listener to the podcast you already know that I have an obsession with caves in Palestine!)
The story of this cave is related to what happened after the birth of Jesus and it is written in the Bible book of Matthew and in some of the apocryphal books, books that did not become part of the Bible but are still considered important accounts.
Let me read for you the story from the Bible
The Escape to Egypt
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
That is the story in Matthew. And according to local tradition there are two places indicated as the place where Mary and Joseph stayed before they left to Egypt. One of these places is down from Attan Street, in a street that connects current day Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. There you can find the Saint Joseph Church. But this church is not visited by tourists.
The Milk Grotto cave and the maggi
The most known location is the Milk Grotto, not far from the cave or grotto where Jesus is said to have been born. There are many local Palestinian Christians who believe that Mary and Joseph stayed in that nearby cave also when the maggi came, also referred to as the wise men or the kings from the East, probably astrologers, who followed the sign of the star.
And when they had reached Jerusalem they went first to King Herod, who was the Jewish client king of the Romans. And Herod the Great, who is very known in Palestine for building some fantastic buildings, cities and fortresses around the country, that we should definitely speak about in another episode, he was a very jealous man and a very paranoid man. To the point where he has several of his own children, his own wife and his mother in law killed out of fear of treason and being cheated. So when these men from the East approached him, Herod the Great was furious. Who was this baby they were asking about that would be considered the new king of the Jews? He didn’t show them his anger and his fear, he remained calm on the outside and said to them that if they found this boy, they should come and tell him so that he could go and worship him too. Obviously he did not intend to do that, he wanted to get rid off that boy.
The maggi never went back to him, after their visit to Mary and Joseph and gifting gold, frankincense and myrrh (which were very common goods that were traded by the Nabateans on the famous incense route, that’s why many people think they were Nabateans) they went back home directly.
God warns Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt
And then Joseph had a dream in which God warned him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt because Herod the Great was planning to have all the young children in Bethlehem killed.
This story also is only found in the book of Matthew. And I will read it for you.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
The massacre of the innocents
This story has been an inspiration for many painters especially in the Renaissance. A lot of nudity, dramatic scenes, facial expressions. You can just google the massacre of the innocents in paintings and you will see a lot of examples.
A drop of milk while Mary was nursing Jesus
But now, what is the story of the Milk grotto. Local Palestinians say that before Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt, she decided to nurse baby Jesus and while nursing him a drop of her milk fell on the ground and miraculously turned all the stone of the cave into very white stone. Since early Christianity women who had the wish to become pregnant started coming to the milk grotto to take some of the white stone and use it as a powder to mix with water and take it as a sign of belief that they would become pregnant by the grace of God. And until today women come and take from the stone.
The Milk Grotto in Bethlehem for fertility prayers
I even have a personal testimony, though I have to admit, I am not a religious person. But when we got married in Palestine in 2013, I took my mom and dad who were visiting for the wedding to see the Milk Grotto church and as we were there and I was telling them the story I licked my finger, touched the stones and licked some of that white dust from my finger. And believe it or not but just six weeks after the wedding I was pregnant with our first daughter, Louisa!!
And actually the church receives many letters, postcards and photos of women from all over the world who became pregnant shortly after their visit to the Milk Grotto. So in Bethlehem it is absolutely a thing. They believe in the power of the Milk Grotto.
What do you see when you visit the Milk Grotto church?
A beautiful entrance to the cave, on street level, made by local architect Issa Hazboun and his wife Helena. They vowed to virgin Mary that they would embellish the church with a pretty facade. Hazboun made a new entrance in 1935. The front gable is a mixture of oriental shape and western classic decorations (with arch and columns with capitals)
The stone he used is local reddish shlaibi stone. In the middle is a picture of Mary nursing Jesus.
On the left and right side of the entrance on the columns there are reliefs with the story of the angel telling Joseph to flee and the depiction of them fleeing with Mary and Jesus on the donkey and Joseph walking besides them.
Directly behind the facade are the stairs that are going down into the grotto. The stairs have been inlaid with mother of pearl brought in from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
When you reach the grotto you will see there are several areas and niches with statues of Virgin Mary nursing baby Jesus. And there is a place to have a ceremony or service. And around the corner is the area where the sisters of the Perpetual Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament pray 24 hours per day. They pray in shifts at a special altar that you can see behind a glass window. So you are looking down onto the chapel and you can see the nun who is in prayer.
Saint Paula church
The very first church that was built on this location was a Byzantine church and it was NOT called the Milk Grotto church but it was called the Saint Paula church. Now who was Paula? Paula was a woman who lived in Bethlehem and who was a great support to Saint Jerome. And Saint Jerome is the one who first translated the Bible from Hebrew to Latin. Paula was a rich widow. She and her daughter Eustochium set up monasteries and convents with financial support. She may have also donated money for this church.
The first church may have been destroyed by the Persians.
The Crusaders then built a church that was later destroyed by the Mamluks (1349/1353)
The present building was constructed in 1872 and the facade later renovated in 1935.
Relics from the Milk Grotto church to Crusader siege of Asqalan
Another story I learned during my studying at the tour guide program is that the white stone of the Milk Grotto church was not only used for fertility but was also sent once with the Crusaders as an extra blessing when they fought the Fatimids at the siege of Asqalan in 1153. The bishop at that time, Gerard III of Bethlehem, brought some of the stone to support Baldwin III and they defeated the Egyptian Fatimid army and took their fortress.
Milk Grotto under Franciscan custody
You may know that the majority of the Palestinian Christians is orthodox and that many of the Christian churches and holy sites are divided between the Orthodox, the Latins Catholics, the Armenians and some other Christian denominations. But the Milk Grotto is property of the Catholics, the Franciscans. It is NOT shared with the others, according to the Status Quo that includes 9 sanctuaries, the Milk Grotto is solely under the Latin custody.