The Church of the Nativity itself is not what I expected either—especially that day. The church is administered and fully used by the Greek Orthodox Church. The day we visited, after we had examined the sanctuary and the altar area, our group was asked to move quietly move to the side of the church sanctuary and stand in silence. We all wondered what could possibly be about to take place. Almost immediately after taking our place in the shadows against the outside wall (it is a very dark church mainly lit by candles), a procession of Greek Orthodox priests clad in black robes and clerical garb along with altar workers moved from the back door of the church toward the altar with incense censors swinging and smoke billowing toward the ceiling. It was a funeral march and I have never seen such a solemn procession. When they reached the altar area with the coffin, a ceremony of about 15 minutes ensued where priests spoke prayers and blessings in Greek and the small group of mourners following the casket genuflected at a couple of points and recited prayers in Greek as well. One got the feeling that this was not a funeral for a local person. This was a combination funeral and pilgrimage. When the service ended our group made our way outdoors and proceeded with the tour.
We moved toward a place underneath the church known as the grotto. It is a small cave area adorned with candle holders on chains and a jeweled star inlaid in the floor. The rest is unspectacular—except for what the star means. Tradition holds that this is the place where the birth of Jesus took place. Despite the colored cloth and candles, it was dark, dank and frankly a bit depressing. What an unspectacular place for the Son of God to make His entrance into this world. This, if not the exact place, was certainly close to the place that the One who made the world, entered the world He created. No royal trumpet flourishes sounded—just the snorting of animals. No royal purple robes awaited—just strips of cloth. No king bed with fine linens—just a feeding trough. No opulent palace—just a hole in the side of a hill—a cave used as a stable. An ordinary birth in less than kingly surroundings—but oh be careful to understand and heed the warning of scripture not to despise small beginnings. This birth, this event changed human history and the history of the universe. This was the dawn of a new creation.
As I knelt in that cave 17 years ago, I had goose-bumps because the funeral procession we just witnessed a few feet above where I knelt, actually celebrated the beginning of the end of death’s hold for those who believe that the infant born in that cave—the “grotto”—was more than an ordinary baby. That baby was the one who would defeat death, hell and the grave.