“And while they were [in Bethlehem], the time came for [Mary] to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” – Luke 2:6-7
Bethlehem – which in Hebrew means House of Bread – is a small city just 11 kilometers south of Jerusalem. Located in the West Bank (the largest area of the Occupied Palestinian Territories), it is separated from Jerusalem by a massive concrete barrier wall.1 Everyone who wishes to visit must pass through a heavily guarded checkpoint.
As we threaded our way through the narrow streets, we were struck by the juxtaposition of the old and the new. Fast food restaurants stand within a stone’s throw of the Basilica of the Nativity. Elderly men visit over cups of steaming Turkish coffee. The streets are lined with stores selling olive wood trinkets and souvenirs.
The Basilica of the Nativity, which encloses the cave in which Jesus was born, is shared by several groups – Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Catholics (under the custody of the Franciscans). The first church was built in the first half of the fourth century by the Empress Helena and her son, Emperor Constantine. Damaged in the Samaritan revolt in 529, it was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.
As we approached the church through Manger Square, we were struck by the unique entranceway. Low and narrow, it is impossible to enter without stooping down. The original entrance, which was much grander, was bricked up by the Crusaders to prevent enemies from charging in on horseback. Now referred to as the “Door of Humility,” it is a beautiful reminder that only those who are humble can enter the presence of the Lord.
It is difficult to describe the church – the sights, the sounds, and the smells overwhelm you as soon you enter. The smell of incense, the hanging lanterns and richly decorated altars, the chanting and the air of suppressed excitement all remind us that we are standing on holy ground.
As we approach the steps to descend into the grotto where we will venerate the place where Jesus was born, we pass a beautiful ancient icon. It is unique – the only icon in which the Virgin Mary is depicted smiling.
At last, we reach the spot. This is the place – the place where our Saviour was born. We kneel – as did the shepherds so long ago – to adore the birthplace of our Lord.
As we retrace our steps to the hotel, we stop at the Shepherds’ Fields – the place where the angels announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds.
As we contemplate the mystery of God’s plan, we echo the angel’s joyous refrain, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!”
– Sharon van der Sloot
“Because [Christ] is born in a cave, all who wish to see him must bend, must stoop, and the stoop is the mark of humility. The proud refuse to stoop. Therefore they miss divinity. Those, however, who are willing to risk bending their egos to go into that cave, find that they are not In a cave at all; but they are in a universe where sits a babe on his mother’s lap, the babe who made the world.”2 Archbishop Fulton Sheen
1 The barrier wall, which is still under construction, separates the West Bank from Israel. It is 8 metres (25 feet) high and is expected to be 650 kilometers (403 miles) long by the time it is completed. By comparison, the Berlin Wall was 3.6 metres (11.8 feet) high and 155 kilometers (96 miles) long.
2 Fulton Sheen, Through the Year with Fulton Sheen.