I followed my fellow pilgrims off the bus and joined those already standing in a circle around Juan, the owner of Mater Dei Tours. Holding a pole topped with a blue flag showing the tour company logo, he said, “Here, before you is the Church of the Nativity. This is the place where it is believed that Jesus was born.”
All of my life, I had read about Bethlehem in Israel, never guessing that I’d actually travel there some day. Yet here I was with my travel companion daughter, Tammie, far from our Wisconsin home in the United States. Walking toward the church entrance, I glanced up at the gray sky overhead. A chill winter wind blew through the courtyard and I remembered a line from the Bible, “That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep.” Burying my hands in my jacket pocket, I thought, “Even in the subtropics, it gets cold during winter.”
The entrance surprised me. It was small and low, requiring nearly everyone to bow deeply in order to safely pass through. George Sa’id, our Christian Palestinian tour guild said, “We call this the door of Humility. It was made small and low during the Ottoman Empire to prevent looters from driving carts in and to force even the haughtiest visitor to dismount from his horse for entry to the Holy Place.” An outline of a formerly larger opening could be seen since different stones had been used to make the doorway smaller.
George said, “In the beginning of the second century Justin Martyr wrote about Jesus’s birth in a cave. Many houses in this area are still built in front of caves. The cave in the back has been used for storage and stabling animals. In the year 326 the Roman Emperor, Constantine and his mother, Saint Helena, commissioned a basilica to be built above the cave.”
Decorative lanterns hung from long chains in rows all along the huge, echoing church nave. Their colors and varied designs fascinated me. Everywhere I looked, there were artistic mosaic renderings of Mary and other members of the nativity story, including angels. Since the lighting was poor, it was hard to see many of them. On the far end was a high altar where a service was being conducted. Our guide explained, “This site is under the shared custody of the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches.”
Nodding towards the men who were fervently praying unintelligible words at the large open altar, I said to Tammie, “No wonder that sounds like nothing but a bunch of Greek, it probably IS GREEK!” My daughter rolled her eyes at my pitiful attempt at being funny.
Leading us toward a stairway that led down to the Nativity cave, the guide said, “The Constantinian church was destroyed by Justinian in 530 AD, who rebuilt the building we see here today. In 614 AD it was spared by the Persians because, according to legend, they were impressed when they saw beautiful mosaics showing the Magi; fellow Persians.
“Through the years much of the marble in the church was looted by the Ottomans for use in Jerusalem. In 1834 there was an earthquake and in 1869 a fire destroyed furnishings in the cave, but the church again survived. In 1847 the theft of a silver star marking the exact site of the Nativity was one of the factors that led to the Crimean War in 1854.”
At the bottom of the stairs we entered single file into a rectangular cave. Pointing toward a star on the marble floor on one end of the cave, our guide said, “That is where Jesus was born.” Pointing toward a small alcove nearby, he said, “We believe that Mary sat there with Jesus in her arms to receive the Magi when they visited. It is the least drafty spot in the cave.”
Kneeling, we bowed to pay reverence at the site of our Savior’s birth. More pilgrims filed into the cave. At Juan’s lead, we stood and went to the backside of the cave and began to sing, “Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace…Sleep in heavenly peace!”
A sense of amazement filled me. Here I was, a humble country girl from the other side of the world, singing a lullaby to the Lord Jesus at the place of his birth. It didn’t matter that it was two thousand years after the fact. I’ve been told that in heaven there is no such thing as time. That means that in God’s way of seeing things, we were truly present and singing to the newborn baby Jesus. Tears filled my eyes as I whispered, “Thank-you, Jesus, for coming into this world.”