Contributed by Turathuna Bethlehem University on 17.09.2006:
Entrance of the Milk Grotto
A few minutes walk from the Church of the Nativity, to the southeast of the basilica, brings you to a cave known as the Milk Grotto. You can reach it following the narrow Milk Grotto Street which starts at the corner of the manager square, or through the door in the Basilica’s southern apse which takes you almost to the mid-way point of the Milk Grotto street. The grotto is of irregular shape hollowed out of the soft white rock. It is now converted into a chapel called by the local Christians ‘Magharet Sitte Mariam‘ (The Grotto of the Lady Mary), but more commonly known to Westerners as the Milk grotto. A church was built here , probably by St. Paula, at least before the fifth century. There are mosaic fragments on the terrace of the grotto, likely belonging to the 5th century, with geometrical motifs and crosses on them. This Grotto was transformed later into a lavishly decorated Chapel.
Tradition has it that the Blessed Virgin stayed for a short time in this Grotto with the divine child. St. Joseph, informed by an angel of the danger threatening the Child and of the need to flee to Egypt, began at once to get ready for the journey and hurried up Mary, who was nursing the Child. A few drops of milk fell on the ground and suddenly the red rock turned white.
This ancient sanctuary is very much venerated by Christians of all rites and even by Muslims. For many centuries, Christian and Muslim women have entertained a belief that the rock had acquired curative properties. If while nursing mothers lack milk, they go to the grotto and, having prayed there, they take a piece of the soft rock, which they grind into powder and mix with their drink. It was customary for European pilgrims to chip off tiny pieces from the whitish rock and take them to the churches in their own towns. From this Grotto came those soft white stones to be found in many European churches under the name of The Virgin’s Milk. The earliest record of this practice is in the 7th century.
The present building around the grotto was erected by the Franciscans in 1872. Some mosaics, and traces of walls from the old church still remain. The facade of the church is a fine example of native workmanship: the Nativity and the Flight to Egypt are told in stone by local artists on the capitals of columns. The stone was carved as if it were mother-of-pearl. The small facade, donated by local Christians, is a nice example of native craftsmanship.
Inside the Grotto, in a cozy corner, there are unique paintings of the Virgin nursing the Child. The people pf Bethlehem have additionally expressed their devotion by decorating the chapel with mother-of-pearl carvings. Also, remarkable is the small arch midway up the staircase, rendered fine by alternate white and red stones. To go up to the terrace you have to ring the bell. A Franciscan Father will let you in. He keeps also the key of St. Joseph’s Chapel.
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Source: A Guide to Bethlehem and its Surroundings by Sawsan and Qustandi Shomali.