Regardless of the time of year one visits, it is always Christmas in Bethlehem. For westerners like myself, approaching the little town of Bethlehem involves a return to one’s childhood, to Christmas carols and Nativity sets, to a lost time of wonder and innocence. In my memory of Christmases past, it was always snowing in eternal Bethlehem. One comes to Bethlehem now with the expectation of finding the tranquility of the stable seen on a thousand Christmas cards, with the three wise men parking their camels outside, and a star softly shining directly overhead.
Except that now the “little town of Bethlehem” does not enjoy a “deep and dreamless sleep” beneath “the silent stars”, nor does it “lie still” like the song says it does. Rather it now lies within the troubled borders of the Palestinian Authority, and its embattled and besieged Christian population survives largely on tourism. Its sleep is not dreamless; most of its Christian population dream of leaving the town and the armed Zionist state, and many already have.
Furthermore the stable portrayed on a thousand Christmas cards never was a stable as northern Europeans knew stables. It was a cave. Even as early as the mid-second century, the Church recorded the local tradition that Christ was born in a cave. St. Justin Martyr writes in chapter 78 of his Dialogue with Trypho, “Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village, and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger.” Origen, writing a little later in 248, says that
“In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumour is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshpped and reverenced by the Christians.” St. Jerome knew of the cave’s location, and took up his own monastic abode right next to it. Entrance to that abode can be found from within the present day church.
In the days of Mary and Joseph, Bethlehem was a tiny little hamlet, so small that the slaughter of its toddlers by Herod didn’t even show up in the history books. (After all, history could focus upon much more important people slaughtered by Herod.) And in those ancient days the area around Bethlehem was wooded, and contained a shrine of the pagan deity Tammuz. Constantine soon changed all that. Bethlehem was one of a number of sites he chose to adorn with large and splendid churches. The church which Constantine built in Bethlehem was destroyed by the Samaritans in the sixth century, but later rebuilt by Justinian in 565, and it is this building which survives until today. You can even see some of the original mosaic on the floor through a trap door.
To enter the Church of the Nativity (as it is now called), one has to enter through a small door. In Justinian’s day the door was appropriately large and grand, but the Crusaders filled it in to reduce its size, and in Ottoman times it was reduced in size even further so that looters would not drive their carts through it. It is sometimes called “the Door of Humility” because everyone must bow a little to enter. No bad way to enter such a holy place.
The gorgeous icon-screen, of course, is not original to Justinian’s church (icon-screens did not exist in churches until much later), but the main attraction of the church which draws people from throughout the world, is not the icon-screen but that which is below it. Around the side of the altar, down a set of steps, is the Grotto of the Nativity, the very cave in which the Saviour was born. Fifteen silver lamps hang down over a silver star set into the marble floor. The Latin inscription around the star reads, “Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary”. No matter that the exact spot where Mary gave birth may or may not be precisely where the star now lies. In this place or near by it, the timeless and uncontainable God entered into this world, emerging from the womb of a young Jewish girl, to share our poor lot and to save us all.
The Grotto does not look much like the Christmas cards, nor like the original cave into which Joseph and Mary stumbled in exhaustion and desperation so many years ago. Its furnishings are opulent (some would say gaudy), man’s poor attempt to honour and adorn a sacred mystery. The star was set in the floor in 1717, and all other furnishings date from after a fire of 1869. But for all this, the place remains timeless, for in this cave, now encrusted with marble and silver, eternity erupted into time. When we kneel under the altar and venerate the silver star commemorating the place where Christ was born, we bow in adoration before the boundless condescension of God. For our sake, the One who was worshiped by cherubim and seraphim, and by countless multitudes of angels and archangels, dared to become Emmanuel, God with us, and walk with human feet upon the earth He Himself made. In this cave, the uncontainable Lord of the universe first drew human breath, piercing the night air with the cry of a newborn infant. His new eyes looked upon a world which would one day crucify Him. It was a cruel and hard world into which the Son of God entered; the rough cave in which He was born prefigured the rough tomb in which His corpse would later be laid. When we reflect upon the depth of the divine humility and love which would dare such things for us sinners, we see that the opulence of the Grotto is not overstated. We offer the little we have in response to that humility and love—even if all we have to offer is a marble shrine, and a silver star.