Bethlehem Church of the Nativity brings unexpected pilgrim issues

View of Manger Square in Bethlehem [photo by author]

During Epiphany season the topic of the Magi and their gift-bearing visit to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem shortly after his birth was still on my mind. I was reminded of my own visit to Bethlehem and the church of the Nativity there in 2013, a pilgrimage of sorts to see this most famous of birthplaces.

To refresh our memories, the Gospel of Matthew in the second chapter recounts Jesus’ birth in a house in Bethlehem and the Magi coming from the East with specific gifts, following a star. The Gospel of Luke recounts how Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be registered there for the census and were visited by shepherds after Jesus was born, in what must have been for Mary quite an experience, in a manger. For an excellent modern interpretation of these events, see the following video from Saturday Night Live.

Mark Chapter 2:4–6

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”

Matthew Chapter 2:1–2

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Back to current day Bethlehem. It lies in the Palestinian controlled part of the occupied West Bank territory, 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem, and a whopping 156 km from Nazareth. Travel by private car is the most popular way to get there from Jerusalem, as you have to pass through a checkpoint which limits vehicle options, and as I went with a friend who is of Armenian origin, which proved to be a bonus for us in several ways, the last bonus being on our return to Jerusalem when we were offered a ride by an employee of the Armenian church.

trying to get a pic of the star

The Basilica of the Nativity is old. It was first built by Constantine the Great in 327, to mark the place of Jesus’ birth. It’s basically remained a big deal since then, with now over 2 million pilgrims annually. It is a big deal. A lot of history has happened in Bethlehem, and in this small part of the globe, and the UN has designated it a World Heritage Site, amongst others.

The property, of course, has evolved over the years, with various chapels, buildings, grottoes, corners, nooks, and altars, all managed by the various patriarchates (Roman Catholic, Greek, and Syrian Orthodox….etc.) as designated by the 250-year-old “status quo” of the Holy Land sites, an understanding amongst religious communities with respect to nine shared religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. (A note of update, the Basilica is currently undergoing renovations since 2016).

Inside the Basilica, the entry to the star underneath the altar is behind all those people. [photo by author]

The hi-light of course is seeing the Grotto of the Nativity, the birth cave which lies underneath the basilica. We were not part of the huge tour group of eastern Europeans which arrived around the same time, but as my friend asked one of the church employees a question, and they determined that she was Armenian, and he was a representative from the Armenian Apostolic—which administers part of the property—he showed us the way to go down and later gave us a tour of other parts of the place, including a rooftop view.

As we went down into the grotto we were part of a huge crowd being shepherded through by their various tour guides. The guides were encouraging “their” tourists to push others aside and get their view of the golden star which is embedded in marble, said to mark the very spot where Jesus was born. Amidst the shouting, jostling, clicking of cameras and phones (mine being one of them), everyone was trying to get their moment to be close enough to touch the star, and take a photo.

There was no room to breathe, it was claustrophobic, stinky, and crowded, and the way people were treating one another in their rabid crush to get their sacred moment left an indelible mark on me.

I don’t remember all the details of the many important historic items, sites, monuments, pieces of art, and plaques that I saw that day, but what I will never forget is how an elderly woman nearly fell onto the star itself, from being pushed by a crowd of Christians insisting upon getting their Jesus blessing.

If Jesus could see what took place there that day, he’d be turning over in his gra……oh wait. It reminded me of the pool of Bethesda story from the Gospel of John, Chapter 5. There Jesus heals a man who was waiting his turn to be the first into the water—which was alleged to heal the first person to get in—once the angels had stirred the waters. The man waited 38 years and had no luck because everyone else who was crippled and sick rushed in before he could!

That story always bothered me for several reasons: one is that all these sick people didn’t form any kind of community being there for so long waiting to be healed. Ya know, maybe get to know one another, figure out who had priority to be healed… I mean, anyone who’s stood in a line for the bus, the bathroom, or the DMV, or even a taco-stand, knows how you form a sort of waiting-community, and if someone steps out of line everyone is aware of it. I digress though. Turns out things were only slightly different 2,000 years ago.

People still want their spiritual healing to come through touch. Through contact with something physical, tangible, preferably with photographic evidence, everyone else be damned. They—we—demand our blessings.

This Christmas, I heard a lovely sermon at midnight about the child that must be born again each year within our souls. What conditions can we cultivate to welcome this Star, the Light, the Love? What manger needs to be cleaned up and made ready for the birth of the Being who is no longer to be found in one place on the globe, but potentially in all our hearts?

Originally published at on January 18, 2018.

I am interested in paradoxes, contradictions, people, culture, and being human. I write and translate DE-EN | MFA student Non-Fiction.

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