Thursday, August 18, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Touching the ground of Jesus

Crawling through a portal
at the Church of the Nativity
BETHLEHEM -- We stood at a tiny stone portal leading inside a large ancient church marking the spot where it is said Jesus Christ was born in a manger.

Inside was dark, hot, and stuffy. We stood in a long line with other pilgrims from all over the world, and then went through another portal into yet a smaller room. The ceiling was adorned with hanging ornate lamps, a few with Christmas bulbs hanging beneath (it is always Christmas in Bethlehem).

We were on the Greek side of the church. The Armenians, meanwhile, were chanting prayers on the other side of the church, and the Roman Catholics soon began singing Taize chants in yet another nearby chapel.

The competition between the Christian sects was on full display.

We then crawled down a steep narrow stairwell into a cave under the High Altar, said to mark they very spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. A star beneath a small altar was supposed to be the very place where Jesus came out of her womb. And next to it was a “grotto” where the baby Jesus was laid in the manger.

I have to say I wasn’t buying it.

How could anyone know this was the exact place of Christ’s birth? Someone in our group remarked it felt more like a dungeon than a Christmas crèche.

I had to remind myself that this was about veneration, not historical accuracy. This was about the faith of the ages, not biblical exegesis.

Lori at the church where it
is said that John the Baptist
was born
On our third day in the Holy Land, we left the confines of Jerusalem to travel to shrines marking moments in the life of Christ. We went to an Italian church marking where it said that Mary met her cousin Elizabeth while both were pregnant, and then a short walk away, a beautiful Spanish church marking where it is said John the Baptist was born. We also past the ruins of the “Church of the Spasm” – the place where it is said Mary experienced her first birth pang.

Our bus took us through an Israeli checkpoint into Bethlehem, which is enclosed by a massive high wall (more on that in another post). We went to a small church on a hilltop marking where it is said that the shepherds in the field saw the angel summoning them to the manger of Christ’s birth.

Did I feel Christ’s presence in any of these places? No more so than anywhere else here or in California or in Virginia. If anything, I felt the thick smoky layers of church history – the creedal arguments, the schisms and crusades, and the legends built on top of legends in these places. I felt the density of how all of that stands between me and the Jesus who walked this earth long ago. I don’t picture Jesus born in a “grotto” under a massive stone church; I picture Mary giving birth in a quiet rural village somewhere far from all of this.

Later, at dinner, a pilgrim in our group, our dear friend Anne, said something that helped me a great deal. I asked people at our table what was their favorite part of the day.

Anne said it was in touching the dirt on the ground and the stone in the caves – the physicality of the prayerful energy of centuries embedded in these places. She expressed it well; it is easier to feel the presence of Christ, who might have walked these places, by touching the ground than in gazing upon ornate churches.

Indeed, throughout the day I had traced my fingers across ancient graffiti, and touched the crevices in the walls. I could feel those who had touched these places before me. And perhaps Jesus had walked this same ground, too.

What did I like the best during the day? The sounds. We followed a group of Brazilian pilgrims through much of the day. Rather than compete for being in the same places, we began enjoying it together. And at the little shrine marking the shepherds, we sang Christmas carols to each other. The Kingdom of God felt very present with us in our singing.

1 comment:

midlifebatmitzvah said...

As someone Jewish who has been to Israel a couple of times, I'm fascinated to see it through a Christian lens. I'd been to the major Christian sites (Church of the Nativity, Holy Sepulchre) but this is the first time I'd ever heard of the CHURCH OF THE SPASM. I love it! Is there a Church of the Water Breaking? How about a Church of the Blessed Epidural? :-)

More seriously, this makes me think of a second aspect beyond the Christian narrative of Jesus' birth. When you think about it, any woman giving birth is a miracle. That a life can grow within us? That it manages to emerge from that narrow passageway? And that what emerges is a real person -- tiny toes, fingers, complex brain, kernel of a personality?

I imagine that isn't what pilgrims primarily think about at the Church of the Holy Spasm, but it seems worthy of contemplation and gratitude to me.