May 23: We returned to Bethlehem to enter the Basilica of the Nativity, which lays claim to being the oldest continuously operating Basilica in the world. It is definitely the oldest in the Holy Land, because the current Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built in the 12th century after it was destroyed twice, in 614 by Persians and in 1009 by a mad Muslim ruler.
Legend says that the Persians who ruined the Sepulchre church did not destroy the Nativity Basilica in 614 because they saw at the entrance of the Basilica a mosaic of the Magi in Persian attire.
You enter the Basilica through the Humility Door, a very low door in which almost everybody has to bend to enter. It reminds you of the low entrance of a cave as the birthplace of Christ. The Basilica door was also made that way to prevent horses and camels from entering because some pilgrims and visitors did bring them in.
Similar to the Sepulchre Church, control of the Basilica is shared by three Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian and thus similar problems. The Basilica looks badly in need of repair and restoration, but it cannot be done because the 3 groups cannot agree on the sharing of the expenses.
We had another guide, Salwa, a Palestinian American who told us that Pres. Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has decided that his government would be the one to spend for the restoration and that experts from Europe and North America have already been tapped for the purpose.
Much of the Basilica is in the control of the Greek Orthodox church, but the Franciscans have the beautiful St Catherine church right beside. I saw a unique mosaic in the Franciscan church which I instructed my companions to photograph. It was a mosaic of St Joseph holding the toddler Jesus together with two scrolls, presumably the Torah and the Prophets, with Jesus touching one of the scrolls. What is usual is the Madonna and Child, but this Father and Toddler with Scrolls mosaic again reminds me of a father's duty to raise and educate his child in the faith.
We proceeded to the Chapel of St Helena, which our guide says goes back to the original Basilica built by Empress Helena. The current Basilica was built by Emperor Justinian in 565 AD after the original was burned during the Samaritan Revolt of 529.
At the Chapel we had Mass with another Filipino pilgrim group. Afterwards we proceeded to line up at the entrance to a cave under the Basilica altar. At this cave, a silver star on the floor marks the spot where Jesus was born, and to the side is a small shrine that marks the spot where the manger was supposed to be.
The problems began. We ended up waiting in line one and a half hours because the Armenians had a ceremony in which they were following a different clock, and afterwards a Minister of Belgium came with camera men and escorted by Palestinian police and he was given priority. Two groups were ahead of us, Indian Muslims from Bombay, and they were patient and well-behaved. The birthplace of Jesus is sacred also to Muslims because Jesus is acknowledged as a powerful prophet in Islam and his mother Mary's virginal conception of Jesus is narrated in the Koran.
What irritated many of us were the Russians right behind us. Some of them were steadily pushing and apparently trying to sneak ahead in the line. At a certain point, we held each other's hands and formed a cordon to prevent the Russian invasion.
Various tour groups accumulated into a long line, and so when we finally were able to enter the cave, the ushers were hurrying us. So we ended up spending a rushed minute in the cave praying, touching the star and taking photos. Some expressed their sadness afterwards, for they did not feel the expected atmosphere of solemnity.
I was a bit stoic about the unfortunate experience. For one, I tend towards the opinion of several critical historians who think that Jesus was most likely born in Nazareth because only the gospels of Matthew and Luke mention Bethlehem as his birthplace, while Mark and John affirm that Jesus was from Nazareth. Also Matthew and Luke disagree on crucial details that it seems that the Bethlehem story was created to show that Jesus was indeed a descendant of king David, whose hometown was Bethlehem.
We had our best lunch so far at the Tent Restaurant with a view of the hillsides of Bethlehem. Starters were pita with 7 different kinds of dips. That was already a tasty meal for us. But they still served roasted chicken and a mixture of beef, lamb and pine nuts. We had a refreshing lemon mint drink, but I tasted the only Palestinian beer, brewed in a Christian village, since alcohol is forbidden to Muslims. The dessert, a baklava, was too sweet.