‘In the Steps of the Master’ by H.V.Morton, recounts the author’s travels in the Holy Land - ‘on a search after the footsteps of Jesus, the disciples and the prophets’.. ... ‘I have attempted to put down in this book the thoughts that come to a man as he travels through Palestine with the New Testament in his hands.’
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Published in 1934 by Rich and Cowan Ltd. London, this is a beautifully written book, easy to read and full of interesting and informative detail of places and people, with 24 photographic plates, and the whole tied-in to the New Testament account of Our Lord’s public life.
I am only part of the way through the book, but two items of particular interest – at least to me, stay in my mind. The first relates to Christ’s birthplace; and the second to the parable of the woman seeking the coin which she had lost.
Jesus was born in a stable at Bethlehem, and our Christmas cards and carols usually portray this from a European perspective. However, H.V.Morton writes:-
‘There are a number of old houses in Bethlehem built over caves in the limestone rock. These caves are exactly the same as the sacred grotto under the High Altar of the Church of the Nativity, and they are probably as ancient. No one who has seen these houses can doubt that Jesus was born in one of them, and not in the stable of European tradition.'
The High Altar in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (1833) - from a painting by Maxim Vorobiev (1787-1855) Immediately below the altar is the cave in which traditionally Our Lord was born.
'I suppose the idea that Christ was born in a stable was suggested by St Luke’s use of the word ‘manger’. To the Western mind this word presupposes a stable or a barn, or some outbuilding separate from the house and used as a shelter for animals. But there is nothing in St Luke to justify this.
These primitive houses in Bethlehem gave me an entirely new idea of the scene of the Nativity. They are one-room houses built over caves. Whether these caves are natural or artificial I do not know: they are level with the road, but the room above them is reached by a flight of stone steps, perhaps fifteen or twenty. The caves are used to this day as stables for the animals, which enter from the road level. There are in most of them, a stone trough or manger, cut from the rock, and iron rings to which the animals are tied during the night. The family occupy the upper chamber, separated only by the thickness of the rock floor from the cave in which the animals sleep.'
Interior of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, showing the site of the 4th century mosaic flooring dating from the time of Constantine, discovered in 1934 beneath the present floor.
'Now if Joseph and Mary had visited the ‘Inn’ at Bethlehem and found it full, there would have been no stable for them to go to, because the ‘Inns’ or ‘khans’, in the time of Christ were merely open spaces surrounded by a high wall and a colonnade under whose arches were rooms for the travellers. The animals were not stabled in the European sense, but were gathered together in the centre of the enclosure. The Greek word katalyma used by St Luke, and translated as ‘Inn’, would be more exactly rendered as ‘guest chamber’.'
Detail of 4th century mosaic flooring (see above) - Byzantine decorative style
'Therefore I believe we must imagine the Nativity to have taken place in one of these old cave-houses of Bethlehem. The guest-chamber, or upper room, which it was the Jewish custom to offer to travelling Jews, was already evidently occupied, and therefore the host did his best by offering to the Holy Family shelter in the downstairs room, or cave.
It is interesting in this connection to remember that the earliest tradition in the Church was that Jesus was born not in a stable or an inn, but in a cave. Justin Martyr, who was born about 100 A.D, repeats a tradition current in his time that, as Joseph had no place in which to lodge in Bethlehem, he discovered a cave nearby. But even before Justin’s time it seems that the cave below the Church of the Nativity was venerated as the scene of Christ’s birth. It is not unreasonable to assume that the caverns below this church were once above ground and formed the bottom storeys, or basements, of inhabited houses.'
The Grotto of the Nativity, an underground cave located beneath the basilica, enshrines the site where Jesus is said to have been born. The exact spot is marked beneath an altar by a 14-pointed silver star set into the marble floor and surrounded by silver lamps.
St Mathew, describing the birth of Jesus, says, “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother; and fell down and worshipped Him.”
Married women wear a znekb or chain, and a high Bethlehem head-dress, with a flowing white veil. The veil is held in position by a small fez held upright on the head by two cords which tie beneath the chin. All round this little fez are sewn row upon row of coins. The znekb hangs from the head-dress and contains ten coins with a central pendant. Those coins represent a bride’s dowry, and it is probable that this was in Our Lord’s mind when He spoke of the parable of the lost coin. ‘What woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently until she finds it?’
Three Bethlehem women, two wearing high head-dress
Most people attribute this description as a tribute to the carefulness of women, but there is more to it. In Jewish times ten drachmae, or ten pieces of silver, were sewn on the head-dress of a married woman, and to lose one of them was a reflection on her carefulness or lack of it, and possibly on her wifely respect for her husband. It may also have given rise to that same superstitious fear which the loss of a wedding ring will bring to a modern wife.’
We know that this parable reflects Our Lord’s love for those souls who have strayed from Him, and the ends to which He would go to find them and bring them back to Himself. The message is similar in sentiment to the parable of the ‘Good Shepherd’, prepared to go to any lengths even to lay down his life for his sheep, rather than lose them.
The following passage is taken from 'The Way to Converse Continually and Familiarly with God' by St Alphonsus Maria de Liguori.
‘The holy man Job was struck with astonishment at seeing God so intent on promoting man’s happiness, that He seemed to desire nothing more ardently than to love man, and that man should love Him in return; hence, speaking to Our Lord, he exclaims: What is man that Thou shouldst magnify him? Why dost Thou set Thy heart upon him? (Job7:17)
'From this we see that it is a mistake to think that great confidence and familiarity in treating with God is want of reverence to His infinite Majesty. You ought, indeed, devout soul, to revere God in all humility, and to abase yourself before Him, when you call to mind your ingratitude, and the outrages which in the past you have committed against Him. This however, should not hinder you from treating Him with the most tender love and greater confidence.
He is Infinite Majesty; but at the same time He is Infinite Goodness, Infinite Love. You have in God the supreme Lord; but you have also in Him the greatest lover that can be imagined. He does not look down on you with disdain, but is full of joy when you treat Him with that confidence, that freedom, and that tenderness which children use towards their mothers.
Behold how He invites us to present ourselves at His feet! Behold the caresses which He promises us: "You shall be carried at the breasts, and upon the knees they shall caress you. As one whom the mother caresseth, so will I comfort you." (Isa.66:12-13) As a mother delights in taking her dear little child upon her knees, in caressing and feeding him, so does our good God delight in treating with like love and tenderness the souls whom He loves, who give themselves entirely to Him, and place all their confidence in His goodness.’
(St Alphonsus Maria De Liguori)
Copies of this devotional booklet are available from the Transalpine Redemptorists, Papa Stronsay, Orkney, KW172AR. (Link on my sidebar)