Today we pilgrims turned towards Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. Our bus took us past six miles of hillside dwellings (that always manage to look like a Christmas card despite themselves) and deposited us in a car park just a short, hawker-intense walk away from the church. A combination of factors prevented our entering by the famous low door which evolved over time as a security measure. It was intended simply to stop people ram-raiding the church and making off with cartsful of silver. Only later was it theologised into the observation that whoever would come to Christ must do so in humility.
Essentially, what you have is a perfectly ordinary Greek church with a particularly interesting basement. That said, it was pretty hard to see any of the main building as they are in the midst of an extensive restoration programme and scaffolding has sprouted everywhere. The nave is largely invisible, its lustrous columns covered in planks of protective wood. Happily there are signs of some of the work nearing completion: restored frescoes in the north clerestory peer tantalisingly over screened-off areas, a promise of what must surely be over by Christmas. By then, the church may appear very far from ordinary. It will be good to have a reason to return.
It is true, of course, that even relatively unexceptional Orthodox churches have a glorious strangeness, with their contrasts of candlelight and darkness, their icons and chanting and age-old infusion of incense. Even the well-travelled and resolutely rational can be overwhelmed (in a good way) by the vastness of things (the so-much-more-than-you’d-thought-ness) which these condensations of the cosmos express. The iconostasis, the screenful of icons running north-south across the east end and shielding the holiest of holies from the gaze of the unwashed hordes, emphasises this sense of the divine glory beyond.
Yet it is precisely this glory, come to earth in human form that the church was built to celebrate. And the speed with which the Byzantines erected a church (as at Nazareth) indicates the strength of the earliest tradition that here, indeed, was the very cave in which he came to us, born of a woman and laid in a manger.
The fact that the Empire then tried to take the site back to itself, replacing Christian worship with pagan, suggests that they too thought the site’s claims were impressive.
But the holy sites of this land have no more need of historicity and any modern sense of accuracy than the Scriptures have. Their task is to be an inspired artefact of theological and poetic truth-telling. They interpret and convey the Jesus-tradition to generations yet unborn, reminding and insisting that Christ came to a particular people in a particular place. This is a truth that needs to be lived out by the Church in every place and among every people, to the glory of God and for the salvation of souls.
Particularity is key, especially for preachers; and explains why the catholic religion needs to be vulgar. It needs to speak into a particular community of people, knowing their ways and singing their songs. It must also acknowledge that all of us, however intellectual, have an urge and instinct to touch and feel, to kneel and kiss the object of our veneration. This is what we saw as people made their way down the pilgrim-worn steps to the Cave of the Nativity. Here, in the heat of the crowd and the enclosed space, they fell down before The Actual Place (part altar, part highly-decorated mantelpiece) to consume the aura of the fourteen-point star that marks the spot, to let themselves be prised open by the Spirit’s power, and to come as close to God as they can.
This was not the end of our visit. There was one more treat, achieved by squeezing past boatloads of Russians, recently disembarked from their cruise ships docked at Haifa.
We were to visit the cell of St Jerome in the next-door cave. In the early fifth century, he produced in Bethlehem a translation of parts of the scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, a language everyone in the western Church could understand. From this universal accessibility the text derived its name – the Vulgate.
Like the incarnation itself, his work made the Word of God available to all. It allowed this word to seep first into the ears and then into the hearts and minds of all who heard it, so that their lives might be changed, their bonds broken and their sinful tendencies redirected.
Through Jerome’s work, the divine shepherd could care for his sheep and the physician could tend the sick. We who proclaim this same word must also be understood if we are to be fruitful. We must know those to whom we minister, understanding and sharing in their lives.
We must, in short, learn to be much more vulgar.