Bethlehem – Church of the Nativity

As it is still technically Epiphany season in some churches, the topic of the Magi and their gift-bearing visit to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem shortly after his birth is still on my mind. I was reminded of my own visit to Bethlehem and the church of the Nativity there in 2013, a pilgrimage of sorts to see this most famous of birthplaces.

To refresh our memories, the Gospel of Matthew in the second chapter recounts Jesus’ birth in a house in Bethlehem and the Magi coming from the East with specific gifts, following a star. The Gospel of Luke recounts how Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be registered there for the census and were visited by shepherds after Jesus was born, in what must have been for Mary quite an experience, in a manger. For an excellent modern interpretation of these events, see the following video from Saturday Night Live.

Mark Chapter 2:4-6

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”

Matthew Chapter 2:1-2

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Back to current day Bethlehem. It lies in the Palestinian controlled part of the occupied West Bank territory, 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem, and a whopping 156 km from Nazareth. Private car is the most popular way to get there from Jerusalem, as you have to pass through a checkpoint which limits the vehicle options, and as I went with a friend who is of Armenian origin, this proved to be a bonus to us in several ways, the last being on our return to Jerusalem when we were offered a ride by an employee of the Armenian church. The Basilica of the Nativity is old. It was first built by Constantine the Great in 327, to mark the place of Jesus’ birth. It’s basically remained a big deal since then, with now over 2 million pilgrims annually. It is a big deal. A lot of history has happened in Bethlehem, and in this small part of the globe, and the UN has designated it a World Heritage Site, amongst others. The property of course has evolved over the years, with various chapels, buildings, grottos, corners, nooks and altars, all managed by the various patriarchates (Roman Catholic, Greek and Syrian Orthodox….etc.) as designated by the 250 year old “status quo” of the Holy Land sites, an understanding among religious communities with respect to nine shared religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. (A note of update, the Basilica is currently undergoing renovations since 2016 which might affect visitors).

The hi-light of course is seeing the Grotto of the Nativity, the birth cave which lies underneath the basilica. We were not part of the huge tour group of eastern Europeans which arrived around the same time, but as my friend asked one of the church employees a question and they determined that she was Armenian, and he was a representative from the Armenian Apostolic —which administers part of the property—so he showed us the way to go down and later gave us a tour of other parts of the place, including a rooftop view. As we went down into the grotto we were part of a huge crowd being shepherded through by their tour guides. The guides were encouraging “their” tourists to push others aside and get their view of the golden star which is embedded in marble, said to mark the very spot where Jesus was born. The shouting, the jostling, the clicking of cameras and phones (mine being one of them), everyone was trying to get their moment to be close enough to touch the star, and take a photo. There was no room to breathe, it was claustrophobic, stinky, and crowded, and the way people were treating one another in their rabid crush to get their sacred moment left an indelible mark on me. I don’t remember all the details of the many important historic items, sites, monuments, pieces of art and plaques that I saw that day, but what I will never forget is how an elderly woman nearly fell onto the star itself, from being pushed by a crowd of Christians insisting upon getting their Jesus blessing.

If Jesus could see what took place there that day, he’d be turning over in his gra……oh wait. It reminded me the pool of Bethesda story from the Gospel of John, Chapter 5. There Jesus heals a man who was waiting his turn to be the first into the water- which were alleged to heal the first person to get in, once the angels had stirred them. The man waited 38 years and had no luck because everyone else who was crippled and sick rushed in before he could! That story always bothered me for several reasons: one being that all these sick people didn’t form any kind of community being there for so long waiting to be healed. Ya know, maybe get to know one another, figure out who had priority to be healed…I mean, anyone who’s stood in a line for the bus, the bathroom, or the DMV, or even a taco-stand knows how you form a sort of waiting-community, and if someone steps out of line everyone is aware of it. I digress though. Things were only slightly different 2,000 years ago turns out. People still want their spiritual healing to come through touch. Through contact with something physical, tangible, preferably with photographic evidence, everyone else be damned. They—we—demand blessings.

This Christmas, I heard a lovely sermon at midnight about the child that must be born again each year within our souls. What conditions can we cultivate to welcome this Star, the Light, the Love? What manger needs to be cleaned up and made ready for the birth of the Being who is no longer to be found in one place on the globe, but potentially in all our hearts?


Mosque opposite church in Manger Square
View from the roof of the church onto Manger Square
Inside the Basilica, the crowd gathers to enter the grotto
Underneath the floor
Because of our Armenian connection, we were given a special roof-top tour
The Grotto of the Nativity
Hills of Judea
Grotto of the Nativity, aka mosh pit, some of the men were the tour guides
In the grotto, everything is covered with something by someone in a very haphazard yet completely adjudicated manner
getting my two seconds near the star
the star is behind that ladies bag

St. Elisabeth’s Church in Vienna – Wieden

The Church of St. Elisabeth sits in a lovely little square in the 4th District of Vienna, Austria. It’s three blocks from the gorgeous Belvedere Palace and Museum, and right around the corner from a good friend’s apartment. On a cold and dank February Sunday morning, I decided to venture out and see what was happenin’ at St. Elisabeth’s, she being my patron Saint after all. My name is Bettina, a derivation of Elisabeth, and although in Europe, especially in the German-speaking areas, this is a well-known and common name (the most famous Bettina for me is the poet and contemporary of Goethe, Bettina von Arnim. I also mention her, because her uncle was Franz Brentano, priest, and professor of Philosophy in Vienna, and the connections come full circle…), in America, this name has garnered me much attention, even ridicule throughout my life. Ah, the cruelty of children. There was an entire summer in grade school, where a classmate called me “Butt” for months. But thankfully, working menial retail jobs where I had to wear a name tag, I experienced more than enough compliments and oohs and ahhs to make up for that summer. When saying my name to people over the years in America, I have gotten, “Oh, Petunia, that’s interesting,” to “Latina! Nice.” Or, the best, from my drill Sergeant in Basic Training: “Bettina!! Isn’t that a black name?!” So now I like to explain how Bettina in the German-speaking world (and I was named after an actual German woman named  Bettina), does mean little Elisabeth. Now we all know a bit about me, and why I shall begin my blog with a post about St. Elisabeth’s Church.

Though not raised Catholic, I find myself drawn more to Catholic Churches than other denominations, and have learned a lot about Christianity through the names of all the churches I encounter, all named after Saints. And there are so many Saints! Over 10,000, depending on who’s counting. Starting with St. Elisabeth is easy because she was the mother of John the Baptist, cousin of Mary and thus Auntie to JC Himself. Oh, and she is amongst other things most famous for becoming pregnant at an advanced age (meaning there’s still hope for me at age 38, ahem). She is also revered in Islam as a pious woman, to top it off.

From the booklet I purchased in the church I discover that this church is dedicated to an Elisabeth—obviously— but not the first one that I had in mind. The patron saint meant here is St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231). She was the Princess of Hungary and known for a miracle of roses and immense charity. As to the architecture, the book tells me “the neo-gothic brick-built church…can be glimpsed from Karlsplatz. The 74-meter high bell tower, set above the main facade, is one of the highest church steeples in Vienna and rises above a three-aisle nave with a slightly protruding transept and a south-pointing polygon-shaped choir. The red brick construction is accentuated with highlights of ashlar (such as buttresses, door and window frames).” This spot had been recommended for the building of a Roman Catholic church twice before but it wasn’t until a decree from the Ministry of Education in 1857 that the church was ordered to be built and funded by the Religious Fund Trust, and the Wieden District petitioned to dedicate the new church to St. Elisabeth, in memory of the recovery from a lung infection of the immensely popular Empress Elisabeth, popularly known as Sisi. The pamphlet explains further that the front portal, reached via seven steps, is divided by a middle pillar—a typical characteristic of cathedrals in the Middle Ages. Above is the statue of St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231), the church’s patron, and featured on the altar painting of the High altar. How many Elisabeth’s can we associate with this place now?

The congregation and Parish seemed quite busy and full, despite the cold pews and lack of heating, there were at least 35 people attending, and I had seen a group of children being taken to a children’s activity in the community building (called a presbytery) in the square nearby before mass. The community flier presents a wide variety of activities, from men’s groups to children’s Fasching (Carnival) celebrations. My favorite was finding a little mini pamphlet called “Kirche im Kleinen: So feiern wir gemeinsam die Heilige Messe” or “Miniature Church: This is how we celebrate the Holy Mass” published by the St. Boniface Association in the back literature table, which tells you how mass is celebrated, and what is happening at each step. A very helpful guide for us outsiders.

The priest spoke German with a slight Eastern European accent, and his sermon was about loving your neighbor, and how much more difficult it is than we think because Jesus didn’t mean just your nice neighbor, the one you like, who is just like you, but strangers too—even the refugees, oh my—and that’s what it means to be Christian, to walk the talk. I left Mass feeling uplifted and interested in expanding my miniature understanding of the church. The stained glass windows I found quite beautiful, but the only thing it says about them in the booklet is that the oldest ones are from 1908, and the newest were replaced in 1950 by generous donations from congregants.

Left side altar of Maria, by Josef Kessler
Main High Altar image of Elisabeth of Thuringia
Right side altar, Christ, by Josef Kessler
St. Elisabeth’s Wieden