OK, I found a plug and I have more juice. So here’s what came next.
Several of us were craving some more coffee and something to eat. One of the priests--from Florida as it happens--had been here before, and he led us to a café just off Manger Square. He ordered some falafel, another priest ordered some hummus, and we all ordered something to drink. When time came to pay, it was fairly cheap--but it was all very tasty.
Now we headed back to the basilica. What was this procession that was planned? We didn’t know; but we dutifully assembled in the newer church (of Saint Catharine, if I recall correctly); a priest was passing out candles and booklets. I managed to score a candle; some women seemed determined to acquire two, for reasons that remain mysterious to this very day.
The Franciscans emerge, now wearing surplices over their habits, led by one of their number brandishing incense, down the center aisle. We all file out. Father A., our leader (whom several of us have dubbed El Jefe), prods me to line up with the monks because I am wearing my cassock; so I do. No one whacks me with anything so I am good to go. But where are we going? To my surprise, we don’t go down into the crypt where we were before; oh no! We’re marching over into the main church! Watch out, you Greeks and Armenians! Here come the Latins! With incense! And we’re chanting! In Latin, of course!
So here we go, back down that corridor, and now we’re marching up toward the sanctuary; and now I see one of the mysterious passageways is actually a stone staircase, down underneath the Greek altar. Down, down we go--you know where! Yes, there. And there it is! The very spot, marked by a 14-point silver star, under another altar, over which hang even more ancient oil lamps. But we don’t stop there, as there is a large assembly of the faithful behind us; so the monks work their way toward the back of a narrow corridor, I’d guess 12 or so feet wide; and thanks to the advice of El Jefe, I’m now way in the back, not up front where all the action is!
But who cares? (Whacking myself!) I’m in the place--the very place--where Jesus Christ was born: hic.
The fellow with the incense found his way toward the front, and the sacred place was incensed; then someone worked his way back through the throng, to where the surpliced monks and I were. And lo! There was a door behind us, which was now opened to us; and thence we processed. Winding our way through--perhaps another ten or fifteen feet--and we were right back where our group had had holy Mass a couple of hours before. Now I could see how close we’d been to the place our Lord had consecrated by his birth.
Now, a question naturally comes to mind. How does anyone know this is the place? It is a reasonable question; and in many of the places we are visiting, it is hard to muster any sort of certitude.
But in the case of the birth of our Lord, this place had always been venerated. Jesus died and rose before reaching his fortieth birthday; so not much time elapsed before believers would have reason to begin taking note of places associated with him. Even if you discount the veracity of the accounts of the visiting magi and the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod (which I do not), it wouldn’t have been so hard to find the place--a cave, near an inn in Bethlehem, where animals were kept.
What’s more, people then would also have known just where Joseph and Mary would have been headed. They’d come to town, as you’ll recall, to register in the census; and it would have been easy enough to recall just where the census-takers had set up shop.
We moderns tend to underestimate the importance of memory, because we have so many other ways to recall things. We write them down, we take pictures and make videos, and so forth. But they didn’t have cameras then; and the written word isn’t necessarily more reliable than memory. And, more to the point, when you have no other way to remember things, you make the most of it.
Before drawing this account of my visit to Bethlehem to a close, let me offer something else. When you travel around this land, you will find quite a lot of caves; and people often lived in them. Scripture makes mention of it. It was a cave where Joseph brought Mary that night--not so much because the innkeeper was heartless; but more because inns in those days didn’t have any privacy, which a woman about to give birth would desire. In Nazareth--at that time a small, no-account village in Galilee--Mary’s home was a cave. Elijah took refuge in a cave on Mount Carmel, and the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth might also have been partly a cave. We might wonder if, indeed, all these events occurred in caves, but when you traverse this land, there are plenty to see.
Suppose it is true. Our Lord was conceived in a cave; born in a cave; and, in a manner of speaking, buried in a cave. What reflection does this invite?
"Through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:4-5).