Hodie Christus natus est.
In 1997, I was part of the Israel Study Program of Catholic Theological Union. We arrived in early September and stayed until early November. Our journey took us from Dan to Beersheba, to Mount Sinai to Mount Nebo to Mount Carmel to the Mount of the Transfiguration. We sailed the Sea of Galilee at night in a wooden boat, waded in the Jordan River, saw the pools of Bethsaida. In the midst of this we studied Scripture and learned about the cultures of today, living in Arab East Jerusalem and crossing boundaries frequently.
On that journey, it was easy to get jaded. There were many shocking things we learned: there is no physical evidence of the Exodus and the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem is probably in the wrong place. A guide we overhead at Ceasarea Phillippi in the Golan told his tour a tree with huge leaves was the tree Adam and Eve made their clothes from when they were cast out of Eden. Although we went to St. Catherine in the Sinai, where tradition says Moses received the Ten Commandments, there is no way of knowing exactly which mountain out of more than a dozen candidates was where it really happened.
The day in Bethlehem was different. It took us two tries to get there: the Israelis closed the border the first time due to a disturbance as punishment to the local businesses for the trouble. It wasn’t the face of Jesus we saw as we got to Manger Square, but oversized pictures of Yasser Arafat. You have to duck to get into the Church of the Nativity: this is ancient protection from looters so they couldn’t bring horse or donkey carts inside. It’s a remarkable place since it’s the only basilica built in Justinian’s time that survives, built in the 6th century. The grotto of the Nativity is under the high altar.
It was just another excursion as I went down the steep stairs to the cave. The area has tons of caves, and it was common to keep animals in them. People and animals didn’t live far apart, either; the farm I grew up on was nothing like their proximity of human and animal. As we walked by, there was a star on the floor in a niche: the spot where tradition says it happened.
We don’t know exactly where Jesus was born as much as we don’t know exactly when. Tradition says it was Bethlehem, and there’s reasons to suspect the story’s true. Some say the story of it happening there is only to fulfill the prophecy in the Old Testament: He was really born in Nazareth or Bethlehem in Galilee (which I’ve only seen on some maps of antiquity.) However, when I got to the place in Bethlehem, I felt something I never felt before. An electricity, a feeling that I never had anyplace else in my journey or before in my life. I stepped out of line to savor it, I didn’t want to leave. It was fantastic.
It wasn’t Christmas when I was there, or even close, but every Christmas time I remember that day, that place, that feeling. Maybe that’s why I don’t care very much for the folderol that surrounds our celebration of Christmas, the romanticism that proof-texts our vague desires of good will and peace without asking much in return. I always keep coming back to what it means having walked that Land, heard the stories, and felt what was there, especially that day. It’s a reason that even though I can question my Faith, I don’t doubt for very long. It’s a reality that changes everything and makes me wonder what I’m supposed to do, how I’m supposed to respond, who I need to be, in the face of this reality:
Today, Christ is here.