As the semester at the “Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies” was winding down, many of us returned to Bethlehem to experience the launch of the Christmas season in the original Christmas place.
I joined the entourage of an American priest, an Australian “religious” (an unordained member of a religious order), and a Bangladeshi nun. All were in search of what Catholics are always searching for, and that is a eucharistic liturgy–whether familiar or foreign–that nonetheless satisfies their need for a regular infusion of the transubstantiated body and blood (the “real presence”) of Jesus Christ.
All such liturgies remain “foreign” to me, I confess; but I have learned to appreciate the devotion of many of the world’s Christians to such. On our journey to Bethlehem, my friends had no idea exactly what kind of service we would find, but all were aiming for whatever might be celebrated within the actual, ancient (4th Century) Church of the Nativity in Manger Square.
Even though it was cold and windy and rainy that day, the crowd at the old church was the largest I had ever seen there. We could hardly worm our way through the five-foot high front door (so fashioned to prevent ancient marauders from riding their horses inside) for making way for others who were coming and going.
Once inside, the normally quiet, dark, cavernous nave was filled to capacity–with standees, which is the Orthodox way. First-timers were disappointed, because they had been told that the “birth grotto” beneath the altar was in use by groups that had reserved it for various masses. Not to be deterred, we made our way to the right side of the nave and approached the venerable rock stairway that leads beneath the altar.
We were surprised to find nobody waiting in line. Peering downstairs, we could see a group of Philippino pilgrims and their priest finishing up their mass. When the Palestinian Authority policeman looked away, we joined the group, and then remained behind in the grotto (cave) as they departed.
Arriving immediately, right on schedule, was a group of six young men in beautiful red silk vestments, one of them bearing a scepter and wearing a crown. These, we learned from the patient policeman, were Armenian Orthodox clergy who had reserved the birth grotto for their own communion observance.
“The service is in Armenian language,” the policeman cautioned, “and it will last for one hour.” But he didn’t instruct us to leave, so we stayed. How many chances would we ever have to experience a complete Lord’s Supper service at the very site where the Lord himself was born?
Orthodox worship is associated with “smells ‘n bells” and musical chanting of the liturgy. At most points in the ceremony a “thurifer” swings a “thurible” (a chain with attached bells and incense burner) while the other participants chant–loudly.
Now, the birth grotto is a cave, after all, and the acoustics are similar to those of a tiled bathroom. (Doug Vancil would love having his Youth Choir there.) Moreover, apart from the narrow entrance and exit stairways, the area is confined. So “smoke gets in your eyes,” and nose, and clothes, etc. But overall it was a pleasant, fascinating, altogether sensory experience.
Along the way, non-initiates like me could hear words that are the same among Christians of all nations: “Christos,” “Hosanna,” “Alleluia.” Tears came to our eyes not just because of the smoke, but also because of our sudden awareness that the Christ of God was being adored in the very place where he entered the world as one of us.
I mentioned a crown and a scepter. As the men entered in all of their red and gold regalia, I thought of the visit of the Magi. But when time came for the consecration of the elements of the Supper, the presider reverently laid aside his crown and knelt before the altar table, which stands above the 14-pointed silver star that marks the spot where the baby Jesus was born.
I thought of familiar verses from the Bible’s final book: “And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, / to receive glory and honor and power, / for you created all things, / and by your will they existed and were created’” (Revelation 4.9-11 ESV).
Christmas . . . in the place of Christ’s birth.