We were fortunate to stay for several days at a Christian owned hotel in Bethlehem just two-minute’s walk from the Basilica of the Nativity, a large church built over the manger where Jesus was born. Our days were kept quite full with visits to the many Christian holy places of Palestine. We would typically return around 5:00pm, allowing for casual visits to the Basilica, which is open until 7:00pm. By that time the heavy flow of pilgrims and tourists had abated and we could pray at the manger without rush or waiting in line.
The door that is kept open during the day for pilgrims and other visitors is called the ‘Humility Door.’ This entrance is so called because it is very small and would require most pilgrims either to enter on their knees or to make a deep bow. Christ’s Incarnation, God made man, is the ultimate act of humility. God, Who is infinite and all powerful, for love of sinners became incarnate as a small, helpless baby taking on frail human nature. The mystery of divine humility is especially celebrated at this, the very place of His humble entry into the world. The Angel did not bear tidings of Christ’s birth to King Herod or Caesar Augustus, or even to the leading citizens of Bethlehem, but to humble shepherds, who bowing adored the Christ Child.
Use of the basilica is shared among the various ritual churches, both Catholic and schismatic through an elaborate treaty called the Status Quo, which dates back several centuries and was brokered by the Ottoman Turks. It defines with great precision the allotment of space given to each ritual church, including the times and manner of their worship. Pilgrims present in silent prayer, however, are always welcome. This is the case for any major shrine in the Holy Land.
The basilica is home to many noteworthy images and chapels, the chief among them, of course, being the underground cave Manger in which Christ was born. The manger, not much bigger than a small living room, is divided into the section were the people would have sought shelter and the part where their animals were kept. The portion for the animals is maintained by the Franciscans to this day, and has a small altar suitable for Latin liturgy. At one point the entire basilica had been the possession of the Franciscans. Under the Status Quo, however, the Ottoman Turks gave possession of the spot within the manger where Christ was born to the Greek Orthodox. The altar erected over it allows pilgrims still to venerate the spot, well marked with a (Latin engraved) silver star, the center of which opens to the rock floor of the cave that has otherwise been covered with marble tiles and precious drapery. The Greeks keep the spot constantly surrounded by burning oil lamps. The tradition among pilgrims is to crawl under the altar and kiss the place of Jesus’ birth. The space under the altar is large enough for one or two people to venerate at a time. Suitable to this place honoring the pinnacle of humility, pilgrims have no choice but to prostrate in veneration.
Man learns through his senses. God, our Creator, knows this better than anyone. So, to teach us about Himself, He became man and walked among us. Far removed from the age and place in which Christ walked the earth, we sometimes find it hard to picture what the Bible talks about in concrete terms. Since it is intangible, it remains imaginary (i.e., left to our imagination to picture). A lot of people mistake this for ‘not real.’ One advantage of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is that you physically walk in the footsteps of Jesus. You see what He saw and touch what He touched every day. We get to know a person much better through common experience, when we meet his family, see where he grew up. Pilgrimage to the Holy Land is doing just that, but for Our Lord. Scripture becomes less obscure. This is why St. Jerome referred to the Holy Land as the “Fifth Gospel.”
Seeing and even touching the place where Our Lord was born has been a major highlight of the pilgrimage and will be a cherished memory in the future, assuredly at Christmastide.