Our first pilgrimage as part of the Hakimah program of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute was to the remains of the Kathisma Church. “Kathisma” is the Greek word for “seat,” and the church was built around the rock where, according to early Christian tradition, Mary rested while on the way to Bethlehem; it sits halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. (There is reference to Mary’s resting both in the Protoevangelium of James and the Quran.). The rock was already a pilgrimage site by the time the church was built.
One of the first churches dedicated to Mary, Kathisma was built in 456, by a wealthy widow named Ikelia. The church was destroyed around the 11th century, and only discovered again in 1992.
A couple of things struck me as we were there. First it is clear that the existence of a prayer niche facing Mecca that the church was used by Muslims (who have enormous respect for Mary) as well as Christians.
Second is the octogonal shape of the church that was built around the rock – the number eight being a symbol of new beginning and resurrection.
Did Mary really rest here on the road to give birth to Jesus? I don’t know. But I am touched by the thought of so many pilgrims stopping along the way to touch the rock, to sit on it, to take water from the spring believed to flow from the rock.
It is easy to capture an image of the rock itself. But while I could not get a good picture of the outline of the church as a whole, this video gives you a good description and a bird’s eye view of the site.