No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus.His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. No man can deny the fact that Jesus existed, nor that his sayings are beautiful. Even if some of them have been said before, no one has expressed them so divinely as he.
It’s been almost two hours since we entered the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We thought we were early when we got here at 7am but already, the hall was filled with people, forming a gigantic queue that led to the underground cave where Jesus is said to be born more than two thousand years ago.
As I struggled to keep my place in the queue, I contemplated on a universal truth—one that could impact thousands if not hundreds of thousands of visitors to this sacred site. Listen: one must never, ever come here without eating a hearty meal first. Yes, you have been warned. During peak season, the queue moves ever so slowly that it will take you AT LEAST TWO HOURS to reach the entrance to the cave. I even overheard someone say the longest waiting time ever is 4 hours! Well, I can believe that. Bethlehem has been packing tourists for centuries, more so since it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2012. So if you don’t want to get hungry while waiting, eat up.
But why in heaven’s name would anyone spend four hours waiting in line? Well, if you were born and raised a Catholic (like me), you would understand. For many of us who grew up going to mass on Sundays, attending catechism classes, participating in parish activities and going to retreats, visiting the birthplace of Christ is a lifelong dream.
The Church of the Nativity is a basilica originally built in the fourth century by Saint Helena, mother of Byzantine Emperor Constantine I, over what is traditionally considered as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The original basilica was destroyed by Justinian in 530 AD. He in turn built the basilica which is the one that still stands today.
Looking around, I could see the seemingly endless restoration going on inside the basilica, such as this golden mosaic on one of the side walls.
Meanwhile, trap doors on the floor reveal the intricate mosaic floor originally built during Constantine’s time.
Centuries-old chandeliers from the Justinian era still hang from the ceiling.
After almost two hours of inching our way to the cave, I found myself just a few feet away from the Grotto of the Nativity. It became a little chaotic at this point as people started crowding at the tiny entrance that could only fit one person at a time. The bottleneck made me feel claustrophobic.
A woman in front of me was in panic. She turned to me and asked if I could take her picture infront of the grotto. She was alone so there was no one to document this momentouos event for her. She could take my picture, too, she offered. But before I could answer, she was swept away by the crowd towards the doorway. That was the last time I saw her.
As I entered the cave, I became awash with awe. I felt the young girl in me surface– the girl who used to memorize Bible verses, sing in a choir, and attend Sunday school. That girl. I felt a little giddy and unbelievably grateful that I now stood before the place I had only read about back in Sunday school.
Finally, I saw the 14-point star that marked Jesus’ birthplace. I only had less than a minute to kneel before the star as people were beginning to crowd inside the small area. Back at the queue, I had been rehearsing what I was going to say before the sacred manger. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember my prayer. As I touched the star, all I was able to utter were two words:
No sooner had I said this under my breath than a huge man–one of the Greek Orthodox priests who guarded the grotto–ushered me out of the way.
Disappointed as I may have been, I hoped those two words were enough to express my gratitude for being given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to commune with God here, at the very place where His son was born. At that moment, my feelings of joy, love and peace were boundless.
Pinay Traveller Notes:
If you’d like to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I highly recommend Executive Resources. Visit their website here.
Read more about the Church of the Nativity, click here.