I’m not in Bethlehem, but like everyone, Bethlehem is in my thoughts these days.
I wanted to share with you a couple of pictures from Bethlehem, from the Church of the Nativity, and explain their significance.
A few days ago I ran across the following picture, which is of a nun praying in front of the shrine in the grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Although we often imagine Jesus being born in a barn, that image comes more from Christmas cards. In ancient Israel, animals were often sheltered in caves, and since extremely early times it was held that Jesus was actually born in a grotto. St. Jerome had his study in a neighboring grotto (so close it’s part of the same church complex), and in his writings he talks about the reasons to think that the grotto of the Nativity is, in fact, where Christ was born.
Today a silver star marks the spot on the floor where the very moment of the Nativity is commemorated. The center of the star is empty, so pilgrims can touch the undressed rock at this point. A similar star marks the top of Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, just six miles to the north of Bethlehem.
In this image of the nun praying, you can see behind her steps leading up to the surface level of the Church of the Nativity, which is above the grotto.
I found this picture particularly moving. It expresses both humbleness and holiness, two elements that marked Our Lord’s entry into the world.
In his Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi (“To the City and the World”) address, Pope Benedict commented on this grotto, saying:
Dear Brothers and Sisters, let us turn our gaze anew to the grotto of Bethlehem. The Child whom we contemplate is our salvation! He has brought to the world a universal message of reconciliation and peace. Let us open our hearts to him; let us receive him into our lives. Once more let us say to him, with joy and confidence: “Veni ad salvandum nos!” (”Come to save us!”)
In his homily at Midnight Mass, he also noted another feature of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem—its main entrance, which is very short and known as the Door of Humility:
Pope Benedict explained:
Today, anyone wishing to enter the Church of Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem will find that the doorway five and a half metres high, through which emperors and caliphs used to enter the building, is now largely walled up. Only a low opening of one and a half metres has remained. The intention was probably to provide the church with better protection from attack, but above all to prevent people from entering God’s house on horseback. Anyone wishing to enter the place of Jesus’ birth has to bend down.
It seems to me that a deeper truth is revealed here, which should touch our hearts on this holy night: if we want to find the God who appeared as a child, then we must dismount from the high horse of our “enlightened” reason. We must set aside our false certainties, our intellectual pride, which prevents us from recognizing God’s closeness. We must follow the interior path of Saint Francis – the path leading to that ultimate outward and inward simplicity which enables the heart to see.
We must bend down, spiritually we must as it were go on foot, in order to pass through the portal of faith and encounter the God who is so different from our prejudices and opinions – the God who conceals himself in the humility of a newborn baby.
In this spirit let us celebrate the liturgy of the holy night, let us strip away our fixation on what is material, on what can be measured and grasped. Let us allow ourselves to be made simple by the God who reveals himself to the simple of heart. And let us also pray especially at this hour for all who have to celebrate Christmas in poverty, in suffering, as migrants, that a ray of God’s kindness may shine upon them, that they – and we – may be touched by the kindness that God chose to bring into the world through the birth of his Son in a stable. Amen.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!