First Sunday of Advent
One of the great blessings in my life is that I have been to the Holy Land three times: once as a seminarian, and twice as a priest. And while the climax of the trip is the visit to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the dead, also one of the major stops is the Church of the Nativity of the Lord. Like a lot of other holy sites, a church was built in Bethlehem at the site of the Lord’s birth during the reign of Emperor Constantine, after his mother, St. Helena, had traveled to the holy sites. Like other churches built during that time, it was destroyed. But, a new church was built, around 529. Unlike other churches, that same church structure from 529, though built up with additions, still remains. As we were told, one reason why this church survived where others didn’t was because when the Persians attacked in 614, they spared this church alone, because above the church entrance were three Persian-dressed men. It’s important to recall that, at the Epiphany, we celebrate Magi, wise men from the east. And what is east of Judea? Persia.
The Church of the Nativity has always been busy each time I went. You enter through a door that makes you bend over to enter, called the “Door of Humility,” since you have to lower yourself to enter. Then, as the antechamber opens up to the main nave of the basilica, you see how long the line is, and how long it will take you to wait in line to see the place where Jesus was born. As a seminarian, I think I waited two hours or so. This last time I went, I think I only had to wait 45 minutes.
|Door of Humility|
Why do I mention this church and my experiences? Not only to highlight that it’s my intent to lead another pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2022, but because I remember that wait. At first you start praying, maybe a rosary, especially the third joyful mystery of the Nativity of the Lord. And you’re trying to stay quiet (because otherwise the Orthodox monks will shush you), but eventually you want to talk a little bit. There’s lots to see as you wait, as some of the columns still have saints painted on them. There are mosaics from earlier times beneath the current floor, which you can see through plexiglass-covered openings in the floor. Everyone wants to get in as soon as possible, so the idea of the line is basically morphed into a clump of people as you get closer (which does get precarious on uneven and semi-circularly shaped descending stairs). There are icons everywhere, as most of the Church is controlled by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. And the smells oscillate between the beautiful aroma of incense which is used in the Orthodox prayers, and the less than beautiful scent of BO of pilgrims who have been in the heat, or from other cultures who may have other approaches to deodorant. But, through it all, you’re waiting to get to the cave, the niche where Jesus was born (we Latins tend to think of the creche, due to St. Francis of Assisi).
|Place where Jesus was born|
So this Advent, we’re on our way to the cave. We’re waiting, not only for our celebration of Christmas, but for Jesus to return, not as a babe but as a victorious King. Jesus tells us to watch, because we don’t know when it will happen. As we go on our way to Bethlehem, our celebration of Christmas, the first step in is always humility. We cannot make our way to the cave, to Jesus’ birth, unless we humble ourselves before God. If we try to get there with our pride, we won’t be able to enter in to encounter God.
There will be times, on our way to the cave, when we know we want to pray, and there will be times when we are tempted to stop watching and waiting, and put our minds on something else. As we go our minds will sometimes be lifted with the smoke of the incense into the heavens. And sometimes we’ll be brought quickly back to earth by smells that are all to earthly, and not divine.
On our way to the cave, it’s important to recognize, as we heard the Prophet Isaiah say in our first reason, that part of the reason we don’t watch so well is because of our sins. We miss seeing God because our sins have grabbed our attention. So let’s confess our sins to the Lord, and ask for His mercy, confident in His love for us. And having received the mercy of God, may we, with St. Paul, give thanks to God, who has given us His grace to become more and more like Him, who became like us in all things but sin.
Today we start our pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Our path is humility, prayer, contrition, and patience. It may take us a while, sometimes it may seem like a very long time, but we’ll get there. And if we are ready, watchful in prayer, then as we celebrate God-with-us at Christmas, and as we watch and wait for Jesus to return, we will find such joy at seeing the star, Jesus, the Morning Star, who will return to inaugurate the day that never ends. Venite, adoremus–Come, let us adore!
|Nave of the Church of the Nativity|