A tourist prays in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity, touching the silver star that marks the site where Christ was born, in Bethlehem. CNS photo/Debbie Hill

The Register Archive: The beauty of Bethlehem never ceases

  • December 20, 2018

Bethlehem has seen many changes this past century, much of it due to the effects of war and an ever dwindling Christian population — but its drawing power never ceases, especially at this time of year. The grotto of the Church of the Nativity is the destination for many — the birthplace of Christ. It was the same 99 years ago, as reported in The Catholic Register of Dec. 25, 1919:

Bethlehem, the town “where it is always Christmas,” is a very beautiful place even today. Of its 10,000 inhabitants, 6,000 are Catholics, and almost all the rest belong to the Orthodox Church. 

The cave wherein Christ was born is shown at the Church of the Nativity, and there can be no reasonable doubt but that it is the authentic spot of Christ’s birth. A silver star is placed upon the floor with the inscription in Latin, “Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.”

The inhabitants of Bethlehem are a happy and cheerful people and their costume has not changed much since our Lord’s day. The men, in their great turbans and flowing robes, the women in their beautiful dress, seem to be engaged in a perpetual drama of the Nativity. 

A traveller tells us: “The women all wear long, white veils, stretching nearly to the ground; but in the case of the married women this veil is draped over a high headdress called the mitra, somewhat in the shape of a tarbush, but covered with golden coins — the wearer’s dowry. The dress itself is richly embroidered in squares of blue, red and gold.”

Speaking of a Mass which he celebrated in the Nativity grotto, a priest beautifully says:

“I shall never forget as long as I live my first Mass at this altar. It was a Sunday, and the cave, lighted only by a few flickering tapers and the lamps that burned around the sacred shrine, was filled with devout Catholics of Bethlehem. Close beside the altar knelt three shepherds, who seemed to have stepped straight out of the pages of the Gospel. 

“They were clad in the long flowing burnous, striped white and brown, and on their heads were white veils, kept in place by crowns of twisted gold and green cord. Here they knelt, absorbed in prayer, and at the sacring of the Mass they flung off their crowns before the altar and prostrated themselves in adoration. 

“And as I raised the sacred host, the wail of a little babe broke the silence, and I felt that I was indeed in Bethlehem. I think there is nowhere in the world where one is brought so near to the realities of divine things as one is here. It needs no effort of imagination to picture the Gospel story, and I at least should not be surprised to hear the angels singing their ‘Gloria in excelsis’ there again.”

Thoughts of Bethlehem are appropriate for us this holy Christmas season. Let us often go there in spirit and worship the Christ-child in the company of the three kings from afar!

(To explore more of The Catholic Register Archive, go to catholicregister.org/archive)

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