Continuing an occasional practice I began in Advent, here are some reflections for the Christmas Season drawn from a recent pilgrimage I led to the Holy Land. As is appropriate, this reflection is based in Bethlehem – the place of Jesus’ birth.
To enter the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, you have to stoop down low to the ground to walk through a small door called the “Door of Humility.” Originally designed to prevent people from riding their horses into the church – and from carrying large items out of the church as loot – the door has more of a spiritual significance today, reminding us that in the presence of the King of Kings, there is no other position to take than to bow low in homage. The actual grotto of the Nativity is below the main altar, in a chapel reached by descending fourteen stairs, to see the place of the birth of Jesus marked by a fourteen-pointed star, and then returning to the main church by ascending fourteen more stairs on the other side of the grotto – together, representing the three sets of fourteen generations in the Genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Once more, you must descend, go down, to commemorate the Nativity of our Lord. The Door of Humility – the Grotto – also remind us of the profound bow that we make each time we profess the Creed when recalling the Incarnation. Once more, in the presence of the King of Kings, there is no more appropriate posture than to bow down in homage, as did the shepherds and magi.
When our pilgrimage group visited Bethlehem this past November, we encountered there the only time we had to wait to visit a place on the entire trip. There was a line of people waiting to descend into the grotto to see the place of Jesus’ birth, although we were told it was a relatively short line compared the typical day (we had to wait in line only about 15-20 minutes). Even in the grotto, you must bow down in order to venerate the birthplace – it is located on the ground underneath a low altar, before which pilgrims kneel and touch the stone at the center of the fourteen-pointed star. History and archaeology tell us that there is every indication that this is the actual place of the birth of Jesus Christ – there are few experiences as profound as praying at the place where the Word became flesh.
Such an overwhelming experience of humility – bowing down – can provide a great source of reflection for us during this Christmas Season. So much of what we do these days is about us – not about the birth of Jesus. All the gift giving and receiving, the decorating and gatherings – are wonderful ways to celebrate generosity and family bonds; but without a distinct effort, they can relegate the birth of Jesus Christ to a Nativity scene on the mantle or an hour spent in Church on Christmas Eve. Humility at Christmas means first and foremost making the Masses of this season the first and most important priority – on Christmas Day, the Feast of the Holy Family, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of our Lord. But a focus on humility – bowing down – does not need to be lived out exclusively in worship and prayer, although daily reflection on the Infancy Narratives in the gospels are also a great way to mark this season. We can also find ways to bow down in humility through our service of others, our visiting of those who are sick or lonely, our sharing of gifts with those who have none. The pivotal question is this: how much are my observances of Christmas about me, and how much are they about Jesus Christ, whom we encounter in prayer, sacraments, and service, and in the presence of whom we bow down in humility and worship?