Monday, December 19, 2011

Divine Memories

It had taken longer to get there than we had imagined since the first military checkpoint had denied our entry. The bus driver said that he believed a more obscure checkpoint a few miles to the south would be more likely to let us through. As we lumbered along a deteriorated road I can remember imagining the many travelers who ventured to this region in the Judean hills so many years ago. Thankfully, the bus driver was right. We got our clearance, but not without a moment of angst as the soldier boarded the bus, his automatic weapon at the ready, and looked us over before granting passage. Our tour guide, however, was cautioned to remain with the soldiers so we continued into town without her.

The image was nothing new. Since arriving in the Holy Land, the presence of heavily armed security forces had become commonplace. The bus driver told me that since our tour guide was Israeli; the soldiers thought it was best she stayed out but that he thought the whole thing was basically stupid. “She’s perfectly safe,” he said while subtly laughing and disgustingly shaking his head. “It’s all political! A question of who’s going to be in control and they want us to know it. That’s all.”

As we pulled up in front of the ancient church, a young priest came out to meet us. His welcoming smile was a comforting blessing amid the tensions of arriving to this beleaguered city.

Entering the church was an odd experience. The small door, known as “The Door of Humility” is so small that everyone has to bow in order to enter this church. Yet even its presence is a reminder of the violent history of the region for one can see the outline of the original entrance in the wall around the door. Hundreds of years ago, the magnificent entry way was reduced to a small door to prevent looters from stealing the sacred objects from the church.

As we walked through the vast expanse of the sanctuary the light from high windows cast beams of colored light across the dusty space, giving it a strangely angelic look and the marble stone walls of this ancient hall echoed with the sounds of our footsteps. I remember a sense of awe in recognizing that this ancient church has stood for 1,480 years!

Our guide led us up to the side of the altar at the front of the church and through a door that led down a stone staircase into the sacred cave that lies below the ancient floor of this magnificent building.

The damp, musky feel of a cave permeated the atmosphere, but it was clear we were in no ordinary cave. The walls were adorned with magnificent Persian rugs and the whole place was trimmed with beautiful hanging lamps, ornate religious icons, and rich tapestries.

To the right, as we entered the sacred underground chamber, was a small alcove, only a few feet high, it looked somewhat like a fireplace except for the brilliant 14-pointed silver star inlaid in marble on the floor. I had seen the image before and was amazed that I was now gazing upon it with my own eyes.

In this small, secluded alcove in a natural cave that ancient residents used to house their animals, the star marked the spot where Christianity believes Jesus Christ was born.

We stood in silence until someone in our group started singing. “O Little Town of Bethlehem …”

In the peace of that underground chamber, suddenly it all made sense. God enters into the most contentious and stressful places of our lives to meet us as Jesus Christ.

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