(First of two parts)
It was in the morning of Nov. 26, 2016, when I first set foot in Bethlehem. I remember that the Church (also called Basilica) of the Nativity was quite full of pilgrims. I also remember hearing a soft babel of voices speaking in different languages.
The Nativity Church is among the oldest major churches in the Holy Land still in daily use. Christians—whether Armenians, members of the Greek Orthodox Church, Catholics, and others belonging to different Christian dominations—consider it holy because it was built over Jesus’ birthplace.
The main entrance to the church is called the Door of Humility. I had to bow down to pass through because it is less than five feet, the theological significance being: We must humble ourselves when we approach God. But others cite some events in history: It was walled up and made small to bar attackers and horse-riding invaders, or to prevent people herding cattle from entering the church.
Mary Ann Payne, a Catholic from Australia who was with me on that first visit to the Nativity Church, said that bending to get through the small door reminded her of the humility Jesus displayed when he took on our human nature.
There was a very long queue from the entrance of the church to the stairs leading to the Grotto of the Nativity underneath the main altar. The Star of the Nativity, a 14-point silver star embedded in white marble, marks the exact spot of Jesus’ birth.
The Bible tells us that in order to take part in the census announced by the Romans, Joseph and the pregnant Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth to Jesus (Luke 2:1-14).
Thanks to a private guide, our queue was shorter—and I found myself in front of the Star in less than 20 minutes. I took a quick look, knelt down, and kissed the Star. I first felt the cold stone, and then I felt warm all over and was enveloped in tranquility and peace. But I was quickly jolted by a nudge and the loud voice of a man shouting: “Move! Move!”
It happened so quickly that I did not notice the inscription on the Nativity Star that reads: “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est” (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary).
As the guide had instructed, I was to have only a few seconds in front of the Star as there was a long line of pilgrims behind me. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that most had been in the queue for at least an hour. (In my third visit to the Nativity Church in November 2019, I was in line for over two hours.)
Mary Ann remembered the church on that first visit to be so crowded. But the great masses of people did not push and shove: “They were so reverent and prayerful especially as they approached the Nativity Star,” she said.
Why Bethlehem is important
According to Sr. Nimfa Ebora, a Filipino nun belonging to the Pious Disciples of the Divine Master, there are many reasons why Bethlehem is important to the Christian faithful. Foremost of these is that it is the birthplace of Jesus, the Son of God.
Sr. Nimfa, a Bible scholar who has taught biblical languages and courses at Recoletos School of Theology and other theologates in the Philippines, cited some of the many events connected to the Christian faith that occurred in Bethlehem: It was where Rachel, Jacob’s wife and the mother of the well-loved Bible character Joseph the Dreamer, died (Genesis 35:19); where Ruth and Boaz, the great-grandparents of King David, met, and also David’s birthplace and home; where the Prophet Samuel anointed David king of Israel (I Samuel 16); and where St. Jerome translated the Latin version of the Bible (the Vulgate), built a monastery, and died.
The belief in the incarnation of the Son of God is at the core of Christianity. Incarnation literally means “to take on flesh.” The Christian belief is that God took human form by becoming Jesus, and that Jesus is fully God and fully human. It is through the incarnation of Jesus and through his passion and resurrection that men and women are saved and become worthy children of the kingdom of God.
Sr. Nimfa stayed in Jerusalem from 2010 to 2014 when she acquired her licentiate in biblical sciences and archaeology. Each Christmas during those years, she took part in the Vigil Mass in Bethlehem. At other times, she regularly visited Bethlehem to pray or to serve as guide to Filipino friends.
What was most memorable for her in those many visits to Bethlehem?
“I believe that I have obtained many graces in praying at the very place where Jesus was born,” Sr. Nimfa told CoverStory.ph. “Meditating on the fragility of the baby who was born there and soon to become the Savior of humanity made me accept my own vulnerability. My course at that time was never easy. The humble beginnings of Jesus gave me assurance at the time that God is in control, and I learned how to surrender.”
World Heritage List
In 2012, Unesco inscribed the “Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route” in Bethlehem in the World Heritage List. Among the criteria for inscription in the list is “to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.”
Unesco states: “The Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route to it are directly associated with the birth of Jesus, an event of outstanding universal significance, through the buildings of which were constructed in the 4th century AD and re-constructed in the 6th century AD. These are a strong symbol for more than 2 billion Christian believers in the world; and are Holy to Christians as well as to Muslims.”
The Church of the Nativity, a Byzantine church, was built by Helena (the mother of Emperor Constantine) to commemorate Jesus’ birth. It is built on top of a cave where, according to a tradition first documented in the 2nd century AD, Jesus was born. It was first dedicated in 339 AD. The edifice that replaced it after a fire in the 6th century retains the elaborate floor mosaics from the original building.
According to Unesco, the Church of the Nativity has been among the most sacred Christian sites in the world since at least the 4th century AD up to the present.
The inscribed World Heritage property of about 2.98 hectares (with a buffer zone of 23.45 ha) is situated 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem. The site includes Latin, Greek Orthodox, Franciscan and Armenian convents and churches, as well as bell towers, terraced gardens and a Pilgrimage Route.
Over the past 1,700 years, Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity have been and still are a pilgrim destination.
Joseph and Mary’s path
The Pilgrimage Route refers to the eastern end of the traditional route from Jerusalem; it connects the traditional entrance of Bethlehem, near King David’s Wells, with the Church of the Nativity. It extends along Star Street through the Damascus Gate, the historical gate of the town, towards the Manger Square where the Church of the Nativity is located.
The Route continues to be celebrated during yearly Christmas ceremonies as the path taken by Joseph and Mary when they made their way to Bethlehem, and is followed ceremonially by patriarchs of the various churches in their Christmases, and during their official visits to Bethlehem.
Sr. Nimfa was able to join a number of pilgrimage walks from Jerusalem to Bethlehem organized by certain groups a day before Christmas Day. The walk of about 8.2 km took them roughly an hour and 30 minutes, she said.
In 2015 after she obtained her licentiate, Sr. Nimfa started taking pilgrims to Israel. “I enjoyed bringing people there,” she said. “Being in Israel connects me to the source of my faith, which is why I want the pilgrims to see and appreciate the biblical places as well. I want them to see what I see and obtain graces for themselves.”
She added: “I want them to see the actual places they only read about in the Bible. It is something to see what the biblical characters themselves saw, and to walk on the very places where the biblical characters themselves walked.”