Our first “official” day here in Bethlehem began with Mass in the Grotto of the Nativity. The Grotto is nestled underneath the Greek Orthodox portion of the Basilica, which is also the most ancient portion of the complex. The entire church has been built over the stone where, it is said, Jesus was brought to light. The grotto is clearly ancient, and as one descends down the steps rounded over with the awed shuffling of countless pilgrims, the air becomes warm and thick from the vapors of the lamps burning within the small, enclosed chamber. Here and there, the sooty black stones show through the gaps in the drapery and brocades that shimmer in the light of the dim flames. The eyes adjust and begin to discern dim shapes and faces on the walls dark with age. A marble altar draped with a curtain woven of gold and silver thread sits astride the stone, and so in order to reverence the holy place as the shepherds and Magi did so long ago, the faithful literally have to prostrate themselves as they approach. Our Mass was offered just a few feet away, on an altar built beside the stone on which the manger sat.
Clearly, one of the more obvious tensions here in the Holy Land is to be found at the holy sites themselves. Aside from the conflicts over jurisdiction between the Orthodox and the Catholics of the Latin, Armenian, and Ethiopian rites, the sheer number of people who come to visit presents problems of its own. A case in point was our own Mass, offered in a space barely large enough to fit a dozen of us and a priest—yet brazen visitors, either oblivious to or apathetic towards the Mass, elbowed their way over to the manger and snapped trios of flash photographs just a foot or two from Father Lodge as he proclaimed the Gospel! The hum of chatter and the shrill commentary of tour guides can often shatter any semblance of respect or humility before the mystery, and it is difficult for many of us to feel no small exasperation over what appears to be total disregard for the sacred nature of the place. Yet in some sense, their conduct is understandable; many of them have saved up for years to accomplish their life’s dream to visit the Holy Land, and they may only have a few minutes of their whirlwind tour to dedicate to each place. They will not be stopped! It is for us, who have the tremendous privilege to contemplate these places again and again, to yield to the less fortunate.
Yet is it not just the pilgrims who behave in discouraging ways; our own Elliot was confronted by a young Orthodox priest not much older than he. Elliot had been standing by the door to block access to the grotto for the few minutes we’d be celebrating Mass; this, we had observed, was common practice on the part of other groups who had celebrated their own liturgies in the grotto in days prior. Within minutes, this young priest came swaggering in, sarcastically demanded to know who was in charge. When Elliot gestured toward the priest celebrating Mass, this young man stabbed his finger into his chest, declared that HE was in charge, and told our fellow pilgrim to get out! Rightfully feeling that argument would only exacerbate an already ridiculous situation, he (and a few others along with him) complied. Observing this petty tyrant from just a few yards away, I was all rage and shame, bewildered that such a display of playground bullying should take place not six feet from the very site to which we’d come to offer worship. Those of us here for the first time couldn’t understand it; the more experienced shrugged it off as the way things are.
Yet, in some sense, this is the very mystery we have come here to contemplate. Is it not a fitting icon of the reality of the Incarnation itself? Are we surprised that the God who descended from His throne on high submits meekly to the mistreatment we are all too ready to offer him? Does not this shoddy icon melt into a glassy mirror, disclosing to us our own irreverence, our own disobedience, our own sin?