Thursday, December 8, 2011


One of the queerest spots on earth - I hope -
is the patch of planet where, according to tradition,
a cave once stabled animals, and where Mary
gave birth to a son whose later preaching -
scholars of every stripe agree,
with varying enthusiasm -
caused the occupying Romans to crucify him.
Generations of Christians have churched over the
traditional Bethlehem spot to the highest degree.
Centuries of additions have made the architecture peculiar,
but no one can see the church anyway,
because many monasteries clamp onto it
in clusters like barnacles.
The Greek Orthodox Church owns the grotto site now,
in the form of the Church of the Nativity.
There, in the Church of the Nativity, I took
worn stone stairways to descend the levels of dark rooms,
chapels, and dungeonlike corridors where hushed
people passed. The floors were black stone or
cracked marble. Dense brocades hung down
old stone walls. Oil lamps hung in layers.
Each polished silver or brass lamp seemed to
absorb more light than its orange flame emitted,
so the more lamps shone, the darker the space.
Descending once more, I passed several monks,
narrow men, fine-faced and black, who wore
tall hats and long black robes. Ethiopians,
they use the oldest Christian rite.
At a lower level, in a small room,
I peered over half a stone wall and saw
Europeans below; they whispered in a language
I could not identify.
Distant music sounded deep, as if from within
my ribs. The music was, in fact, people from all over
the world in the upper chamber, singing harmonies
in their various tongues. The music
threaded the vaults.
Now I climbed down innumerable dark
stone stairs to the main part, the deepest basement:
The Grotto of the Nativity.
The grotto was down yet another smoky stairway,
at the back of a stone cave far beneath street level.
This was the place.
It smelled of wet sand.
A fourteen-pointed silver star
two feet in diameter, covered a raised bit
of marble floor at the cave wall.
This silver star was the X that marked the spot:
Here, just here, the infant got born.
Two thousand years of Christianity began here,
where God emptied himself into man.
Actually, many Christian scholars think
"Jesus of Nazareth" was likely born in Nazareth.
Early writers hooked his birth to Bethlehem
to fit a prophecy.
Here, now, the burning oils smelled heavy.
It must have struck many people that we were
competing with these lamps for oxygen.
In the center of the silver star was a circular hole.
That was the bull's eye, God's quandam target.
Crouching people leaned forward to wipe
their fingers across the hole's flat bottom.
When it was my turn, I knelt, bent under
a fringed satin drape, reached across
half the silver star,
and touched its hole.
I could feel some sort of soft wax in it.
The hole was a quarter inch deep
and six inches across, like a wide petri dish.
I have never read any theologian who claims that
God is particularly interested in religion, anyway.
Any patch of ground anywhere smacks more
of God's presence on earth, to me, than
did this marble grotto.
The ugliness of the blunt and bumpy
silver star impressed me.
The pathetic pomp
of the heavy, tasseled brocades, the marble,
the censers hanging from chains,
the embroidered antependium, the aspergillum,
the crosiers, the ornate lamps -
some human's idea of elegance -
bespoke grand comedy, too,
that God would put up with it.
And why should he not?
Things here on earth get a whole lot worse
than bad taste.
"Every day," said Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav,
"the glory is ready to immerge from its debasement."
Annie Dillard, b. 1945
American novelist and essayist
Take a tour to Israel and there is
one town you'll need to think twice about visiting.
Jewish tours almost always avoid it, even though it is the
birthplace of the greatest ruler in Israel's ancient history—King David.
Christians like to tour there,
but it is such a hassle that many settle for a "facsimile."
You can walk through a reproduction of this town
(particularly at this time of year) in many major U.S. cities,
from Longview, Washington, to Orlando, Florida.
I am talking about that little town of Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is only six miles from the heart of Jerusalem,
but since it is in Palestinian territory, to get there from Israel
you have to go through a border crossing.
If you are part of a tour, you will probably have to
get off your bus and board another with a Palestinian tour guide and driver.
That is why Jewish groups rarely go there and 
why many Christian groups decide the hassle isn't worth it.
From the site



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