As we draw near to the feast of the Nativity, Bethlehem looms ever larger in my mind. At the same time, the entrance to Bethlehem appears as well. This article, posted on Christmas of last year, draws attention to the unusual feature of the entrance of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We all have a journey to complete before we reach the manger of the Christ Child. This article describes an aspect of that journey.
St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great (also a saint of the Church), was, according to British legend, the daughter of King Cole of Britain – indeed, the King Cole of the famous English nursery rhyme:
Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl and he called for his fiddlers three…
St. Helena, following the conversion of her Emperor son, traveled to the Holy Land and is credited with the discovery of many relics, including, most famously, the true cross. She also initiated a building spree in the Holy Land, erecting Churches at holy sites, for what was now a newly protected religion of the empire. Thus the initial foundation of many churches in the Holy Land date back to the fourth century and the efforts of St. Helena.
However, in 618, the Holy Land was invaded by Persians who destroyed all but three of the churches built by St. Helena (thus foundations remain of others but have later churches built over them). One of those three churches is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The mosaics within the Church are among the oldest in the Christian world, and played a role in the building’s survival of the Persian invasion. It is said that when the Persians entered the Church of the Nativity, they saw in the mosaics depictions of the Magi (who were Persian). They spared the building thinking that there must be Persians somewhere in the area.
This same edifice underwent further danger after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land. It became a commonplace for soldiers to ride their horses into the Church (a means of harassing the local Christian population). The local bishop, afraid to approach the Sultan directly, instead ordered a secret solution. He had stonemasons work overnight to reduce the size of the entrance – leaving the present entrance which is well below the height of a man’s head. The only way to enter the Church today is to bow deeply as you go through the door. And it certainly does not permit the riding of a horse.
So much for history.
My encounter with this Church and the history of its construction took place during my pilgrimage to Jerusalem this past September. Like all of the pilgrims and tourists, I entered the Church with a bow. It is a very fitting exercise to approach the cave-shrine that marks the place of Christ’s birth. It is an action that follows the image of God’s own humility as He condescended to be born a man. It is a humility that St. Paul enjoins upon us:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).
I am reminded of this physical action everytime I enter my own parish. As is Orthodox custom (not universally observed), the Church is entered with bows (cross yourself and bow – three times before entering). This same action is used as icons are greeted (and this is indeed widely observed) when entering the nave of the Church. Many visitors, unfamiliar with Orthodox customs and the veneration of icons, mistake this bowing as an act of worship. It is nothing of the sort, but rather an act of humility by which we give “honor where honor is due.” We honor those depicted in icons (Christ, His mother, the saints, etc.) because it is either an image of Christ, or an image of the saints – those whom Christ God Himself has honored and shown forth as bearers of His holiness. Orthodoxy makes a distinction between veneration (relative honor) and worship (the honor which belongs to God alone).
This Tradition of the Church, like the door in Bethlehem, requires an action which is unusual in our culture. The culture of democracy has a history of “leveling,” treating all things and all people as equal. This has a benefit when it comes to our standing before the law – even a President has to submit to the laws of the land (theoretically). But it can also lead to a misperception – that all things are, in fact, equal. St. Paul has a small comment on equality:
There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory (1 Cor. 15:40-41).
Even if all things and all people were equal, the admonition in Philippians remains. Christ, though equal with the Father, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (or clung to).” The humility that is asked of us is an action that sets aside the demands of equality and allows us to bow before God and before all whom He has asked us to serve (which includes all of humanity). To bow as we enter the Church, or as we greet the saints, is nothing more than an outward action that has been demanded of our innermost heart.
I have said in other places that believing in God is harder than many people think. It may be less difficult to believe that there is Someone who loves me, or Someone who can help me – but it is quite difficult to believe that there is anything greater than oneself. As an old recovering alcoholic once told me, “There’s only one thing you need to know about God – you’re not Him.”
Our culture teaches a form of democracy – one in which we find it difficult to bow before anything – but it also teaches us a form of idolatry – where we bow before things that have no worth (I think particularly of the cult of entertainment). How necessary it is for us to learn to bow – to honor that which is honorable. It is a lesson which teaches the heart the importance of contrition and brokenness before God (Psalm 51).
It is a lesson taught by a doorway in Bethlehem – a dim shadow of the great Act of humility that emptied itself and was born in a cave – not far from that door itself.