Circa 2010:

As I walked through the Church of the Nativity, originally built in 327 AD over the traditional birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem, the old Christmas song kept playing in my head: O little town of Bethlehem/How still we see thee lie..The hopes and fears of all the years/are met in thee tonight. 

Every now and then, I would stop and read silently from my Bible, which was opened to the Gospel of Luke: But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. 

Bethlehem, Israel

It all begins with, appropriately enough, the Door of Humility, the main entrance to the basilica. It is so-called because you have to bend your head and your body into a slight bowing position in order to enter.

Bethlehem, Israel

The Door of Humility.

The Church of the Nativity comprises two churches and a crypt – the Grotto of the Nativity, which lies beneath the church and has a 14-pointed star which is supposed to mark the exact spot where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. And as you enter through the Door of Humility, this is what first greets you.

Bethlehem, Israel

There weren’t many tourists when we first entered in the morning.

Bethlehem, Israel

Bethlehem, Israel

The church itself is administered by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic authorities. Just like at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional spot where Christ was crucified and buried, the three factions have continually clashed over the administration of their respective areas of responsibility.  I’m not sure which denomination this priest (?) is from, but we caught a glimpse of him and several others conducting mass.

Bethlehem, Israel

A priest conducting mass.

My friend Ding and I soon came to the entrance to the Grotto, where a handful of tourists were waiting to enter. This was around 11am, and given the sparse crowd, we moved on, thinking that we would have plenty of time to explore it later on.

Bethlehem, Israel

Pilgrims queuing to enter the Grotto

But just 20 mins later, this is what the queue looked like:

Bethlehem, Israel

 My heart sank. We had experienced something similar in Jerusalem earlier that week, when we came back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre twice before we were able to enter the Aedicule, supposedly the exact spot where the body of Christ was interred. But we had only a day in Bethlehem, and the church would be closed by early evening. Fortunately, Ding was kind enough to wait with me. He isn’t a believer, but he’s interested in the archaeological aspects of the holy sites.

And so we waited. And waited. And waited. Surrounded by largely Russian and what seemed to be Ukranian accents, tt took us about two hours before we were able to enter the Grotto.

Bethelehem, Israel

We were getting closer and closer to the Grotto, and a fair amount of (gentle) jostling took place.

All that waiting left plenty of time for reflection. I thought about the shepherds out in the fields that the angels appeared to. What were they thinking, as they hurried from the fields to the manger? I don’t know how far away they were, but they must have been sweaty and out of breath as they stumbled upon Joseph and Mary and their precious child. The promise of the coming Messiah was something that had been taught to the Jews from an early age. How long had they waited for Him? What was it like, to finally look upon the face of God? And what do you do with the rest of your life after that?

Bethlehem, Israel

Right at the entrance to the Grotto

Suddenly, before we knew it, we were right inside the Grotto. It was a rather small chamber, perhaps about the size of an average HDB flat living room. And it was packed with pilgrims, all reverentially silent.

Bethlehem, Israel

In the Grotto.

Bethlehem, Israel

The 14-pointed star, embedde in a marble floor. Courtesy of sott.net

The sanctity of the moment was somewhat spoiled though, by this bored looking Orthodox priest, who was handing out little paper icons depicting the crucifixion of Christ. I suppose his sense of wonder has been despoiled by the hordes of tourists and pilgrims who come to the church day after day. You could see it in his expression and the gruff manner in which he told those who lingered too long in the Grotto to move on.

Bethlehem, Israel

Bored priest in the black right over there.

There was also this borderline creepy looking nun in blue, sitting quietly in the corner. I was half expecting her to pronounce the judgement of God upon us. But she just sat there, meditating and/or praying.

Bethlehem, Israel

The nun sitting quietly in the corner of the Grotto. Apologies for the blurred image.

Judging by the reverential manner in which many of the pilgrims bent to kiss the 14-point star, they were of the Orthodox persuasion.

Bethlehem, Israel

Pilgrims kneel to kiss the 14-pointed silver star

Being of the Pentecostal denomination, I didn’t kiss it directly (besides, isn’t it kind of um dirty after so many lips have touched it?) Instead, I touched my fingers to my lips before placing my hand on the star and moving on. I would have liked to linger on, but there were simply too many people in the Grotto. It wasn’t quite an encounter with God, but it would have to do.

Two years on, I still think about that day. The heat of the day – temperatures went into the high 30s that day. Armed policemen standing everywhere in the church. The dozens (hundreds?) of pilgrims that waited patiently to enter the Grotto. The way my heart was pounding as we inched closer and closer. How cool the star in the Grotto felt to the touch.  Closing my eyes in a brief prayer  on my knees.

My logical mind tells me that there is no sure way of knowing that the Church of the Nativity is indeed built over the actual spot where Jesus was born. But faith is rarely a matter of the head, and very much one of the heart and the spirit. Sherlock Holmes may have said that you should never let your heart rule your head, but visible symbols will always matter when it comes to matters of faith and devotion.

And so the Church of the Nativity, continually destroyed and defiled and rebuilt and restored, may not quite be the place where the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords was born. But thoughts of a helpless babe, safe in the arms of his mother, worshipped by shepherds and angels on high, were more than enough for me to bend the knee in prayer.

Bethlehem, Israel

Devotional candles lit by pilgrims

 Have you ever been to Bethlehem? What was the experience like?