One of the holiest sites—if not the holiest site—for Christian pilgrims is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Inside this old church that goes back to the time of Constantine (4th C) and rebuilt in the time of the crusaders (10th C) is an underground grotto that claims to be the cave where Jesus was born of Mary, the place where the manger stood. Pilgrims wait a lifetime to get here, spend precious money, and travel from far more miles than the Magi to bow humbly in this sacred place.
You literally have to assume a humble posture in order to get through the very low front entrance. We made my entrance quite a comical spectacle, as you can see normal sized people trying to enter in this photo.
We waited in line for well over an hour to creep down those ancient stone stairs into that underground grotto. The aromas of frankincense and myrrh mingle with the sounds of every tribe and tongue and nation inside that old church as pilgrims inch ever closer to that holy spot. We laughed as we discovered Greek Orthodox emblem on the medieval lamps suspended from the ceiling looked a lot like the Minnesota Twins logo on my hat.
Then suddenly you are funneled into that little doorway as you descend to your golden moment, whereupon you have about 10 seconds to observe and pay homage at the spot where Heaven invaded Earth and Eternity kissed mortality before a staff person shoos you onward to keep the line moving.
There’s a 14-pointed silver star embedded in the marble floor marking the spot, and when my precious 10 seconds came I approached, not knowing quite what to do, but instinctively bowed low on my knees and put my finger onto the place and touched that now smooth stone millions of pilgrims have been touching for centuries, day after day after day, world without end. I stress again that I reached out and touched the holy place with my finger. The natural oils of my finger tips joined those of countless fingerprints of men, woman and children of two millennia, making ever smoother and shinier the original rough, grainy limestone cave that hosted that first nativity pageant. My friend Peter beautifully captured the moment (see photo).
Now the tragedy.
As I stood up and slowly back away from the holy place to let others have their turn, I noticed many of the pilgrim’s were not even getting on their knees and most of those who did bow down and approach the place were not reaching out to touch it. What do you think they did when given the opportunity to touch the place where Jesus may have uttered his borning cry? This photo I snapped gives you the the sad and tragic answer.
A photo? That’s it? Come on… Hey, at least it wasn’t a selfie with a big cheesy smile! Person after person filed through, squatting down with finger on their phone instead of history, snapping a digital photo they can find anywhere on the internet, and moved on with their lives without a touch. (I know at least one person reading this will be thinking about germs about now.)
Friends, we have a Scratch and Sniff faith following a God who put on human flesh in order to engage us in all our “embodied-ness.” God reached out to touch us in the incarnation of Jesus, and in response we can reach out and touch some of the places He once stood. For millennia, pilgrims have itched to scratch their finger nails across places such as this—not because this stone or relic is God, but because God was once here. Like Moses in the cleft of the rock, places like the Grotto of the Nativity allow us to, as it were, almost touch the backside of God’s fading presence. When faced with such an opportunity, may we stretch our finger out to touch the fading glow just as the woman reached out to grab the hem of Christ’s robe. How sad if she had gotten that close and settled for a photograph.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have HEARD, which we have SEEN with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have TOUCHED—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
I am writing this and the reflections to come in order to make the joy of my pilgrimage more complete by sharing the places I have touched with all of you. I pray they are a blessing to you.