St ELLS 0 TEAT
THE WORLD Geoffrey Flumphrys
N Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. the Latin bells along the street of the Milk Grotto ring out their joyous remembrance of the birth of Our Lord. The sound of these bells is relayed by radio to all parts of the world, then re-echoed by church bells throughout Christendom.
In England. it was St. Dunstan of Canterbury who started the custom of ringing the bells at frequent intervals throughout the Christmas Octave, insisting that the Feast of the Nativity was an occasion of celebration and merriment. "Ring the bells," he told his monks, "so that men may raise their hearts in thankfulness." And he was very severe on any monk who forgot his duty at the appointed hour.
thoughts of all Catholics turn to two places—Rome and Bethlehem.
AT Although many Catholics in this country have never visited Bethlehem they can readily evoke the scene of the first Christmas remembering that the birthplace of Our Lord was also the birthplace of the true faith.
The most inspiring route to Bethlehem is through the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem, a path trodden by millions of pilgrims through the centuries. Nowadays there is a continual stream of traffic going to and from the old city, but the hordes of street vendors .around the gate make a picturesque scene, reminiscent in colour and content of this representations used in illustrated Bibles.
The roadway to Bethlehem is narrow and dusty, and after passing the splendid old church of St. Andrew and crossing the plain of Rephaim, rises steadily towards
the cluster of white houses and vineyard of the little town set upon the hill HE traveller passes the ancient well where the Magi are said to have stopped to water their camels when they had lost trace of the star. Legend declares that in the surface of the water they saw the reflection of the star. enabling them to continue on their way. Along the toad is the monastery of Mary Elias, where the Greek Patriarch rests on his way to keep the Eastern Christmas in Bethlehem. The next point of interest is the tomb of Rachel. venerated by Christians, Jews and Moslems. According to Genesis. where Benjamin was born, Rachel died "and was buried on the way to Ephrah, which is Bethlehem."
With these landmarks left behind the wonderful little town of Bethlehem looms on the horizon.
The massive, stone, fortress-like Church of the Nativity dominates the view and one is immediately impressed by its solid antiquity. Yet what stands for is more important, and the present day buildings surrounding it tend to fade away into obscurity. leaving only the mental images of Christ THE Roman Emperor Hadrian tried to destroy the sanctity of Our Lord's birthplace by planting a grove in honour of Adonis upon it.
How miserably he failed, for in A.D. 33(1 the enlightened Constantine had the trees uprooted and the place marked with a church. Inside the present church, the faded remains of a Constantine mosaic can still be seen. It represents the Magi offering their gifts to the Holy Infant.
This particular mosaic is historically interesting, for it played a great part in saving the church during the invasion of the Persians. They recognized the Magi figures of the mosaic as Persians and believed the building to be a Zoroastrian temple, not a Christian church, so they left it untouched. Since then it has survived to become the oldest Christian church in the world.
The church building standing today was erected by Justinian in the sixth century. One of its most striking features is its small, low door through which only a tiny child can pass without bowing the head in humility.
The original entrance was bricked up and this small door used to prevent Saracen vandals riding into the church on horseback. Over the old entrance there are the remains of a piece of oak. a gift sent by King Edward IV of England to repair the roof.
NCE. inside the church and standing in the centre of the nave, a double row of pillars can be seen on either side. There are many reminders of the gallant Crusaders — the faded outlines of their paintings of saints on the pillars and traces of mosaic dotted about the walls.
In the crypt is the cave-like Grotto of the Nativity, a spot
consecrated by centuries of devoted worship.
On either side of the steps leading down are more Crusader pillars with their crosses carved on top.
A visitor to this holy precinct cannot fail to be impressed by the poignant realization of the epochal event of nearly two thousand years ago. The cave was once a part of the innkeeper's house, where his family and animals lived under one roof. Even in Bethlehem today similar dwellings still exist.
Although essentially of this world, the Grotto of the Nativity has an aura of something far greater than human understanding can fully encompass. A golden star sunk into the floor in a niche under a rock marks the actual spot where Our Blessed Lord was born. Millions of Christians through the ages have knelt before it in reverence and worn away the rock with their kisses of devotion.
ANOTHER holy spot is the mark indicating where the manger stood, and all around there are jewels set in the walls of the cavern. An elaborate altar commemorates the visit of the Magi. This is the scene of the first Christian home, lowly but exalted, a perfect visiting place for a Christian on Christmas Day.
There is a wealth of religious interest in the many caves leading out from the Grotto, the cave of the Holy Innocents among them. Above the altar of the Chapel of St. Joseph is a beautiful painting of the Holy Family — Our Lady with the Infant Jesus and an angel whispering in the ear of St. Joseph while he sleeps Further along is a picture of the Holy ,Family on their way to Egypt, with the Pyramids drawn by the artist to denote the end of the journey. Close at hand is the chapel where St. Jerome wrote the Vulgate. His grave is here also, together with that of Eusebius, the early Church historian
ITT OVING out of the
Grotto and through
the church, one's eyes have to become accustomed to the brilliant sunshine in order to see again. Along the Milk Grotto are the Latin bells and over a wall one sees the fields where the shepherds were tending their flocks when they heard the news of the birth of Our Blessed Lord.
Somewhere in the valley stretching below were the fields of Boaz. Here Ruth gleaned corn and David played as a boy.
Today the hills gleam in a glorious pattern of light and shadow. It is a sight hard to leave, for it emanates a most moving aura of sanctity and peace, a recognition of the wonderful truth that here Our Lord was born to bring light to our darkness.