“Hold on to the railing,” our guide said as we wound down the stairs of the Church of the Nativity to the grotto. “These steps are centuries old and very tricky.”
The Silver Star
The church, built under the direction of Saint Helena, has been used continuously since 333 AD. St. Helena, using her influence as the mother of Constantine, Emperor of Rome, had this sanctuary built over the site where she believed Jesus had been born.
Beneath this ancient church, is a cave—a cave that, back in first century Jerusalem, looked like any other inner-city cave. As the city grew up around it, the cave found a job—you know, made itself useful. Situated next to an inn, it offered its services to the innkeeper as a stable for sheltering his animals. The cave would have been a quiet, peaceful place, a place where guests often stayed when the inn reached capacity.
Today, a silver star on the floor of that cave marks the spot where St. Helena believed Mary gave birth. Another niche is considered to be the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger.
Fact? Maybe. Truth? Definitely.
True? Hard to say. Me? I think that it is possible. Time did not move as fast then as it does now, so maybe . . . . If so, I imagine people saying, “That’s where that woman had the baby a few years ago, right? Yeah! That was a crazy night–stars looking funny, shepherds leaving their posts and rushing off to see this baby! Crazy times.” And I can imagine that story being passed down through generations with a certain degree of accuracy; after all, oral historians made an effort to keep their messages free from embellishment. So no, I’m not one of those total skeptics who thinks it’s impossible that third century people could have gotten it right. It really could be the place where Jesus was born. But it’s really not a big deal to me either way.
To me, whether the Grotto of the Nativity is the real, exact place where Jesus was born is not the point. I don’t really care much about such particulars. This I know: for more than 20 centuries, believers have come to this place to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They have come from far, far away, and from right next door, on donkey-back, on camel-back and on train track. They have come: speaking Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Swahili, Russian, English. They have come in a steady stream of expectation, watching their step and holding onto the railing, to worship in this place. It’s like an Advent devotion come to life!
Prayer for Peace
So, as I stepped carefully on those tricky centuries-old stairs, my spirit reached out to the great crowd of witnesses there in that place with me. I turned to face the silver star and, joining my voice with theirs, I prayed, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace, good will to all people.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Luke 2:13-15 (NRSV)
These days, the significance of that place is even greater. Back in May 2008, when I visited, one of my all-time favorite professors was there too. Dr. Gerald Keown was much more skeptical of the site than I. (To be fair, also way more educated than I so, ya know, I concede.) Still, he folded his six foot something frame down into the grotto with the rest of us. I suspect that for him, singing carols with the group was a bigger attraction than the silver star; he was an excellent singer with a strong and resonate voice.
Later, Keown and I discussed the site. He scoffed at the validity of the location, himself having spent time on archeological sites such as Petra, the ancient city in Jordan. He shared details of his studies and the complex analysis required to date items accurately. As usual, his argument made a lot of sense and I agreed with his premise that the likelihood of this being the exact spot of Christ’s birth was minimal. Always a teacher, though, Keown welcomed my thoughts on the matter; I shared with him my perspective–that it is a place of holy communion of worshippers here and beyond. I told him I thought of it as a thin place where we experience the presence of God more because of the people than the geological location.
As I spoke, Keown leaned in, hearing me. He nodded, his facial expressions suggesting this was a bit of an “aha” moment for him.
In December 2021, when I learned of his passing following a battle with cancer, I was deeply saddened. I recalled that moment in Israel and so many more when the lines between teacher and student blurred and friendship formed. I remembered once my first semester when I made an announcement in chapel. After the service, he sought me out and said, “YOU need to be in the pulpit every week! That was extraordinary.” I was surprised and a bit bewildered. I responded with something like, “Um, it was announcement. . . ?” He shook his head (more than a foot above my own) and said, “That’s not the point. You have a gift.” It felt like an anointing.
I think of Keown so often: his gentle way tucked behind a formal, professorial presence; his face shining with devotion at the very mention of his wife, Sharon, and their daughters; his goofy grandpa demeanor following the birth of his grandson. I recall his brilliance when teaching Hebrew and the Hebrew Scriptures, his excitement over certain words–a trait that I picked up and carry with me today, literally.
Steadfast and lasting
One of those words was חֶסֶד, pronounced “chesed.” When he taught us this word, he challenged us to look for it whenever the English translations offered words like “goodness and mercy,” “loving kindness,” “steadfast love.” He explained that חֶסֶד is a love so complete that only God can truly achieve it. He would get choked up and teary eyed as he added, “And that is how God loves each one of us–abundantly and without reserve.” A few years after my graduation from GWU Div School, I got my first tattoo, the word חֶסֶד on my right wrist. The tattoo reminds me of God’s love and how that love was made manifest in Christ Jesus. And it reminds me of my dear professor Gerald Keown, whose academic intellect was only exceeded by his love of humanity. Rest in peace, dear, dear man. The world is dimmer for your absence.