Bethlehem, Part 2
In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the
whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled,
each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the
town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary,
his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came
for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.
Our second stop in Bethlehem was the Church of the Nativity. This is of course, the main place people come to in Bethlehem. This is the place that Jesus was born.
We walked into the church, which is actually an Orthodox church, and were stunned by all of the beautiful lamps hanging from the ceiling. It is very ornate, very beautiful and very, very holy. Our guide gave us some history on this church, most of which I really didn’t understand or pay attention to, except the fact that this church was saved during the crusades only because it bore the image of the three kings on it.
I was much more interested in Jesus’ birthplace than the church built above it (although, the history is interesting and definitely worth doing research on!).
I don’t know about you, but I have always been taught that Jesus was born in a manger. I have the picture of that wooden structure imbedded in my brain and maybe you do as well. I had heard occasionally that Jesus was actually born in a cave, but I never believed it. Jesus was born in a stable. A wooden stable. Right?
It turns out Jesus was actually born in a stable. A cave stable. In that part of the world at that time, the animals were housed in caves. Caves are a natural part of the landscape there and very abundant. They would have protected the animals and their caregivers from the elements: the heat of the summer and the rain of the winter. They never would have built a wooden stable. It just wasn’t practical.
And so yes, Mary and Joseph were led to a cave when they discovered there was no room at the inn.
The interesting part about this cave now, though, is that it has been split in two parts. Yes, that is right, split with a wall built right in the middle. (This is true of other Holy sites in Israel as well, sigh…)
The Eastern church (the Orthodox) and the Western church (the Roman Catholics) could not get along. Surprise, surprise. And so, instead of either one compromising, they split they very spot where their Messiah was born. Of course, so logical, right? Ugh!!!!!
Anyways, this means there are two entrances. The first is the Orthodox entrance. There was a huge line there, our guide explained that there always is. It would take over an hour to get in and our visit would have to be quick. He then pointed out the Roman Catholic entrance. There was no line, no wait and we could go in and pray for as long as we wanted to. It turned out that there were a few of our group (they were Australians, not that it matters) who were interested in going into the Orthodox side. Not because they were Orthodox, but because they were just there as tourists and wanted to see everything. Our guide explained that he would be able to talk to the police (yes, there are police in the church…) and be able to get up to 5 of us up to the front of the line. The rest of us really had no interest in going into the Orthodox side and so it worked out just fine.
Our guide first talked to the police, got the Australians where they wanted to go and then took us into the Catholic side.
Nothing could have prepared me for the emotion I felt there.
Peace. Total peace.
It was empty, save a few stragglers and us. We all fell immediately to our knees, including the kids. We all silently prayed for what seemed like a very long time and yet, it really wasn’t enough time.
Finally, our guide came back to explain to us what we were looking at and praying in front of. Directly in front of us was an altar. He explained that this built directly over the place Joseph had received the message from the angel in a dream to flee to Egypt with the newborn baby Jesus and Mary. He then pointed out to us the spot on the wall that is the tomb of the Holy Innocents.
The tomb of the Holy Innocents, as you may know, holds the babies that King Herod killed in his pursuit to kill the one the thee wise men mentioned. Herod, of course, was jealous and wanted Jesus dead.
My heart just broke on the spot. I knew about the tomb, but did not know where it was located and really did not expect to see it.
Next, our guide took us deeper into the cave and showed us the room where St. Jerome lived while he translated the Bible into Latin. I felt an immediate connection to St. Jerome and it was a strange coincidence that I found a devotion to him after arriving home. I definitely want to learn more about him and the work that he did. One of the many fruits of this pilgrimage.
All too soon, it was time to leave. We had one more stop to make in Bethlehem and our time was short. It was truly sad to leave this place.
Later, we talked to the Australians about their experience in the Orthodox side of the cave. They said it was like Disney Land. There was a lit up star and sound effects. They said they much preferred the quiet Catholic side.
Me too, but to each their own. This, I would find, is one of the main messages of the Holy Land. To each their own. As the Jewish people say, Shalom. Peace. Shalom.