7: Pagan signposting
When Queen Helena, mother of the newly converted emperor Constantine, came to the Holy Land in the first half of the 4th century to build churches, she appointed the locations of Jesus’ birth and death for the most grandiose structures in her building programme.
Helena was neither the bold archaeologist some believe her to be, nor, as others may charge, the perpetrator of haphazard speculation. She certainly faced no obstacles in locating the site venerated by the Christians as the place of Jesus’ birth.
As on Calvary in Jerusalem, the Romans sought to discourage Christian acts of reverence by building a pagan temple above the holy site. Creative historical revisionists may attribute the decline of the Roman empire to the decay of logic among its civic decision-makers. A little foresight might have persuaded the Romans that far from discouraging veneration, the pagan temples in Bethlehem and Jerusalem would serve to keep alive the memory of these holy places. By the 4th century, the temples were as good as signposts for Helena.
Her basilica of the Nativity was badly damaged in the early 6th century, and rebuilt in the middle of that century. This is the church that still stands mostly unchanged in Bethlehem, jointly owned by the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian churches. Most of the original decorations have long disappeared, though the mosaic floor of Helena’s original basilica can still be seen.
This possibly is the oldest still intact church in the world (there certainly is none older in the Holy Land). It might have been different. In 614, Persians marauded through the Holy Land, sacking every church and convent they could find. But as they entered the basilica of the Nativity they were held back by a depiction of the magi, in ancient Persian dress. Out of respect, they spared the church. The church had other close shaves with barbarous invaders. These encounters moved the custodians of the basilica to lower its entrance twice, to deter horseback raiders. Since Crusader times, to enter this huge church one needs to crouch through a tiny doorway.
At the time we visited the basilica, a small group of Catholics were celebrating a rather crowded Mass in the grotto where a silver star marks the spot of Our Lord’s birth, a rather crowded but doubtlessly rewarding affair.
The famous Christmas Eve Mass, which is televised around the world from Bethlehem, is celebrated in the 19th century St Catherine’s church, which can be entered from a sidedoor in the basilica. We had Mass in the tiny adjacent chapel that marks the lodging of St Jerome, the man who translated the Bible into Latin in the 4th century an oddly appropriate place for a pilgrimage headlined by a Catholic newspaper.
Before returning to Jerusalem, we went to Shepherd Fields, a lovely, pastoral church on the outskirts of Bethlehem which commemorates the angels apparition to the nocturnal shepherds. Here the resident curator, Br Michel, sang for us in the style of the popular Italian singer Andrea Bocelli. It was scripturally opportune that we should have enjoyed a musical performance at Shepherd Fields, even if we had to do with an accomplished solo tenor instead of the celestial chorus in Luke.
Back in Jerusalem, we visit the revamped Holocaust museum, Yad VaShem a shrine of remembrance of humanity’s capacity for evil which had re-opened just a couple of months earlier. The former, smaller Yad VaShem museum was expansive, but it packed a ferocious punch. It also commemorated Pope John Paul II’s deeply moving visit there in 2000. The late pope, of course, made the significant acknowledgement that the Church had an unhappy history of institutionalised anti-Semitism.
The new Yad VaShem is a technical triumph, but emotionally it is a let-down. Its multi-media information overload numbs the senses. Alas, instead of marking Pope John Paul’s bid for reconciliation, the museum denounces Pope Pius XII for his supposed complicity in the Holocaust by omission. If Pope Pius carries any blame (and the debate about that continues), then surely the silence of Churchill and Roosevelt, who knew at least as much about the death camps, warrants a similar indictment. The truth is that the world failed the victims of the Holocaust. It is a calumny to hang this scandal on poor Pius.
After our experience of the “Separation Wall” in Bethlehem earlier that day, a glaring hypocrisy was evident. Commenting on the museum’s exhibition of the Warsaw ghetto, which the occupying Nazis encircled with a wall, one of our pilgrims posed a perceptive rhetorical question: “Have they learned nothing?”
Will they ever learn?