Tucked away behind Nativity Square, not far from the Church of the Nativity that, according to Christian tradition, marks the spot where Jesus was born in the manger, is the Milk Grotto. This is the location where, according to another tradition, Mary nursed the Infant Jesus and where a few drops of her milk fell onto the rocks, turning the soft limestone from its original yellowish-brown hue to a creamy white.
In a tradition dating back centuries — possibly even to the earliest Christians — women and couples who are unable to conceive have come to this grotto to pray to Mary, in hopes that her intercession will bless them with a baby.
Today, pilgrims can take home tiny packets of white powder from the grotto, and together, the couple for 40 days follows a devotion that includes drinking small amounts of the powder and saying a prayer. The bags are sold at a symbolic cost but can only be purchased at the grotto since the requests would be overwhelming to manage.
In the 12 years since Brother Lawrence Bode, the Franciscan caretaker of the shrine, has been keeping records, there have been about 4,000 letters from couples attributing their miracle babies to the “milk powder.”
Brother Lawrence estimates that there have been twice as many babies born whose parents have not written him. He keeps all the letters and pictures in black and white three-ring binders and is now on his 10th binder. The latest babies include a pair of twins.
“(Last week), I went to the post office box and there were about 10 baby pictures,” Brother Lawrence said. “People pray for healing so they can have a baby and become a mother. Every two days, we have a baby. It is a wonderful place to work, bringing babies from all over the world. It is such tangible evidence to the miracle. The letters are the testimony.”
Indeed, the letters and pictures in the binders and the ones decorating almost two walls of his small office next to the shrine come from every corner of the world, including Brazil, Argentina, India, the Philippines, Mexico, the United States, Canada, Germany, Sri Lanka, Bermuda, Ireland and Spain. More recently, Brother Lawrence said, he has even been receiving letters from Taiwan and China.
Each letter attests to the difficulty the couples had in conceiving. One woman and her husband wrote from India that they had struggled to conceive for as long as 20 years. The husband wrote about their immense joy when their baby girl was born after they had followed the devotion. An Episcopal pastor from the United States wrote about the six years he and his wife were trying to conceive and sent a picture of him proudly carrying his newborn baby in a carrier on his chest. From Argentina, a young woman wrote about the birth of her daughter after 10 months of trying to conceive.
Two local Palestinian couples sent in pictures of their miracle babies: One couple had triplets, and the other quadruplets.
Brother Lawrence says he often jokes with couples to be careful how much of the powder they take because that is what can happen. But in all seriousness, he says he never asks the couples if they are also undergoing fertility treatments but acknowledges that very well may also be the case. Their prayers and faith in the devotion may help the process along, he said.
Some letters attribute other miracles, such as healing from cancer, blindness and paralysis to the “milk powder” as well.
“It is a wonderful feeling to know that there is hope for couples, people who are sick, even people who are losing faith. I pray for the people who take this devotion every day of my life,” said Brother Lawrence. “This is evidence that there is God. We are talking about miracles. In these days, you talk about miracles and people don’t believe.”
Some people, such as the parents of the quadruplets and the parents of a girl from a northern Galilee village who was in a coma, have brought their children back to the shrine to give thanks, Father Lawrence said.
Long devoted to the Virgin Mary even before he went into religious life, Brother Lawrence said his devotion has grown threefold since he joined his order.
“There are a certain number of prayers I have to pray to the Virgin Mary every day or I am not a happy person,” he smiled, adding: “We put our faith in Jesus. We put our faith in his mother.”
In several spots in the grotto, ceiling holes the width of a finger are evident where, over the years, people have scraped bits of the powder to take home. Indeed, Brother Lawrence says, they must be vigilant of people who try to scrape the powder from the ceiling. Just recently, he said, a visitor was attempting to carve out hunks of the stone with an umbrella.
The structure was renovated two years ago, removing centuries’ old soot from the ceiling and, to accommodate bigger pilgrim groups, adding a larger upper chapel on top of the older chapel, which was built over the grotto around the year 385.
He noted that at some point during earlier renovations, a huge deposit of the powder was put into storage, which is what is today offered to the faithful who come to the shrine. Brother Lawrence said he believes there is enough to “last at least 100 years.”
“This gives the people hope. It is good that there is hope,” said Svetlana Rezinovski, a tour guide who came by for the second time in two days to buy numerous packets for members of her group from Moldova. “Orthodox Christians also come to ask for (Mary’s) help, too.”
As Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus during the Christmas season, Brother Lawrence says he celebrates the birth every day as babies from all over the world are born with what he believes is the intercession of Mary using the grotto’s “milk powder.”
On Jan. 1, a special Mass in honor of Mary is celebrated at St. Catherine Cathedral, which is adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. Several hundred faithful follow in a procession with song and prayer, carrying an icon of the Virgin Mary to the Milk Grotto, where they are blessed by a priest.
“Jesus tells us that if we have the faith of a mustard seed, we can move the mountain,” Brother Lawrence said.
“Miracles happen with people’s faith. This is not magic. It has to do with a person’s faith and belief.”
Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.