It has been an exhausting and overwhelming day of seeing holy places associated with the birth of Jesus. After a lecture on the Magnificat and the Benedictus, we headed out by bus to the hill country.
Somewhere in the hill country Mary and Elizabeth met, Elizabeth praised Mary, and Mary passed the praise on to God with the Magnificat, based on the Song of Hannah, praising God for the great reversal of fortunes in which the downtrodden would be raised up.
There we visited two churches, not that far from each other. First we visited Ain Kerem, a church near a spring where Elizabeth might have gone to draw water. The church there commemorated the Visitation. Brother Mark, SSJE, led us in a reflection on the two women seeing God acting in each other and suggested the import of that story and the artistic representations of the Visitation convey a message that is profoundly ethical and political. The challenge is to watch for God at work, sometimes invisibly, always mysteriously, in each other.
Did Mary and Elizabeth actually meet at this place? Maybe. No one knows. But they met somewhere like this, somewhere nearby. Not far away, we stopped at a Franciscan Church purporting to be the birthplace of John the Baptist. It would seem likely that the place of the Visitation and the place where John was born would both have been the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah. But both churches were in the same area. Each artistically expressed a different part of the story. A slight difference in space actually represented a three-month difference in chronology in the narrative.
At the first church, we sang the Magnificat. At the second, we recited the Benedictus, both canticles from Luke, both believed to be based on songs of the anawim, the community of poor and powerless people who first welcomed the gospel.
From there we drove to Beth Shakur, House of the Night Watch. There are three different locations around Beth Shakur purporting to be the field where lowly shepherds were the first to hear of the birth of Christ, the first to hear the evangelion (which can mean a birth announcement). One is Orthodox, one Franciscan, one Anglican. We went to the Anglican Shepherd’s Field. In the field was a cave as old as the time of Christ, much older really, but reinforced with pillars. In such caves the Shepherds would take shelter. In this cave we sang Angels We Have Heard On High. Brother Mark spoke of the meaning of the night in which God’s salvation is proclaimed. What does night mean for us spiritually? What does it mean in the context of a darkened world? In this town a few years ago, a tax resistance protest by Palestinian Christians was met with a forceful Israeli response that culminated in violence. There is a sense in which it is night here. It is into such nights that the gospel breaks, a light shining in the darkness, a light dawning on people who walk in deep darkness. Surge illuminare.
This afternoon we went to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Holy Nativity. This church dates from the 6th Century. It is a holy, ancient house of worship built over a group of caves. Was Jesus born here? Or was he born in a similar cave nearby? Does it matter? If so, not much. People have been coming here to reflect on the Incarnation and worship Christ for centuries. St. Jerome lived in one of these caves. He translated the Bible into Latin here, the exclusive translation used in Western Christianity for a thousand years. He is buried in one of these caves. We visited his tomb and the chapel dedicated to Jerome, his successor Eusebius, and the two women who helped him with his work – deservedly canonized as saints these women since Jerome was a decidedly unpleasant man and a misogynist.
The Church of the Nativity is maintained by different brands of Christians. The Greeks and the Armenians are not friends. Again, the complexity and imperfection of the Church as a people of God. We are more visibly people, more mysteriously of God. The entrance was once large but to make it harder for Persian invaders to charge into the church on horses, the entrance was bricked up to make it very small. One now has to do a solemn bow to enter the church. We begin with humility. Frescoes once covered the walls but most of them have faded away. Others remain. Lamps hang from chains. To enter the cave where Jesus may have been born, one stands in a long jumbled line as throngs of people wait their turn to enter through a narrow door and descend narrow steps. As fate would have it, we were jammed in between a group of Russians and a group of Poles. Somehow that seemed fitting.
Eventually we made it though the door into a narrow stone stairway covered with rich red tapestries. At the point in the cave that represents the birthplace of Jesus we kneel to kiss a 14 point star with a hole in the center, and emptiness, a mystery – the 14 points representing 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the Exile, and 14 from the Exile to Jesus.
It is an exhausting kind of learning we are doing. It is a sensate rather than conceptual learning. It is visual images, sounds, textures. It is an incarnate engagement with the story of incarnation. It will take some time to assimilate this day. I hope when I have sorted through it, I will find myself better able to see God at work in the lives of others, better able to shine gospel into someone’s night, and better attuned to God’s presence in this material world of ordinary life.