My dear people of St. Mary’s,
It was nearly one year ago that our pilgrim tour bus parked in the town of Bethlehem. We disembarked into the chill air. January can be cold in Bethlehem. More than one-hundred of us made our way through the streets filled with Muslim men selling Christian religious goods. We entered the large town square (“Manger Square”) still dominated, in those first weeks of the new year, by the large, modern, artificial Christmas tree. We came to a very old, and unprepossessing building. As we made our way, slowly because of our numbers, to the entrance, it seemed at first as if there was no way in. However, before long there it was: a small entry door about four and a half feet high and one foot off the ground. Known as the “Door of Humility”, it requires effort to enter, and many bump their heads or scrape their shins. But that is, in a sense, appropriate. Ven. Fulton Sheen, in his Life of Christ, wrote:
The Son of God made man was invited to enter His own world through a back door. Exiled from the earth, He was born under the earth, in a sense, the first Cave Man in recorded history. There He shook the earth to its very foundations. Because He was born in a cave, all who wish to see Him must stoop. To stoop is the mark of humility. The proud refuse to stoop and, therefore, they miss Divinity. Those, however, who bend their egos and enter, find that they are not in a cave at all, but in a new universe where sits a Babe on His mother’s lap, with the world poised on His fingers.
Once inside, the pilgrim is confronted with a divided church; shared by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Syriac Orthodox churches. Each has their own place or time for worship. Pilgrims enter, tour the basilica, and wait patiently on line to descend to the ancient grotto underneath, to the place in the cave where our Savior was born.
As one gets nearer, things become quieter, even with crowds. Pilgrims ready their cameras, they hold the wall for support, they might whisper some prayers. And then you enter the grotto and you stand before the decorated altar, hung with votive lamps, and beneath which is a fourteen-pointed silver star. Around its center are inscribed the Latin words: Hic de Virgine Maria Iesus Christus natus est; “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary”.
It is in this moment and in this place that everything of the modern world begins to dissolve around you. All is still and quiet, even with a multitude of people. As you kneel before that star, and touch it with your hand, and offer your prayer, you suddenly realize that all the stories that you have heard since childhood are true. You are where heaven truly touched earth and changed everything, and especially you, forever. As you kneel where the shepherds did that night two-thousand years ago, you know the truth of the promise: “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Like those first pilgrims, you believe you have found Him. But you are wrong. Bethlehem is the place where God came to find you.