The current-day Church of the Nativity is a squat, buff-colored, fortress-like edifice built on the site of the fourth-century church mentioned by Jerome. Its byzantine history is summed up by the physical appearance of the church’s main entrance, which clearly shows three stages of development—that is, the doorway was made progressively smaller and more difficult to enter, and the outlines of the larger, more ancient doors can easily be seen. Visitors can discern first, a large sixth-century opening (a wooden lintel is still embedded in the church wall); second, a smaller archway fashioned by the Crusaders; and finally, an even smaller entrance, from the Turkish and Ottoman periods, which was designed to prevent looters from entering the church with ease. The entrance to the great church, then, is now a three-foot-high doorway.
Thus, to enter the Church of the Nativity, one must bow or kneel. As a result, the paving stone has been worn smooth, with a marked indentation made by millions of pilgrims. Strangely, I found this entrance, called the Door of Humility, more moving than the church’s interior. As I entered the building on my knees, I thought not only of how God had lowered himself to enter into our humanity, but also, more specifically, how Jesus had lowered himself so much that he assented to be crucified.
Excerpts from “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” by James Martin, S.J.
Photo Gallery (click to scroll)
Reflection from pilgrim Richard LaBelle:
At the end of our day at the holy places, we pilgrims were the church-in-the-world, struck silent by the sight of the concrete wall that separates Palestinians from Israelis. No one questioned the accuracy and fairness of the observations of Maher, our Arab guide. He is a professional tour guide who gives up his free time to join the Canadian and American Catholics during faith-sharing. He has their respect and trust.
During the morning and afternoon, our group—all pilgrims, in fact—are the catholic church in the fullest possible sense, a church for all peoples all over the world through the ages. Each site has many chapels from which rise prayers in Spanish, Greek, English with a host of accents, and other languages not so easy to identify. Eastern Orthodox caretakers allow the Melkite guide to lead the Roman Catholics into the site of the manger. We come to this set of caves to venerate the site because Emperor Constantine’s mother, during her quest to find the one true Cross, judged that this set of caves in Bethlehem surely must be where our Lord drew his first breath. In 2016 we descend steps worn shiny by millions of shoes, and we steady ourselves by grabbing hold of limestone columns blackened by the dust and sweat and skin of millions of hands. We walk and stand and tremble where Sister Egeria during the fourth century, crusaders during the 12th century, Ignatius during the 16th century and Pope Paul VI during the 20th century walked and stood and trembled—all convinced that the Word made flesh was here before us.
The high point of our day took place below the basement of the basilica, in the chapel amidst the caves a few feet from the place of Jesus’ birth. It is not difficult to imagine that the incarnate God, who lived as we do, shared our tears and hopes during the prayers of the faithful, enjoyed our hearty rendition of “Joy to the World,” and later shared our dismay about the concrete wall that separates people.