Bowing in Bethlehem


Pardon a bit of history – then I’ll get to the point.

St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great (also a saint of the Church), was, according to British legend, the daughter of King Cole of Britain – indeed, the King Cole of the famous English nursery rhyme:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he.

He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl and he called for his fiddlers three…

St. Helena, following the conversion of her Emperor son, traveled to the Holy Land and is credited with the discovery of many relics, including, most famously, the true cross. She also initiated a building spree in the Holy Land, erecting Churches at holy sites, for what was now a newly protected religion of the empire. Thus the initial foundation of many churches in the Holy Land date back to the fourth century and the efforts of St. Helena.

However, in 618, the Holy Land was invaded by Persians who destroyed all but three of the churches built by St. Helena (thus foundations remain of others but have later churches built over them). One of those three churches is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The mosaics within the Church are among the oldest in the Christian world, and played a role in the building’s survival of the Persian invasion. It is said that when the Persians entered the Church of the Nativity, they saw in the mosaics depictions of the Magi (who were Persian). They spared the building thinking that there must be Persians somewhere in the area.

This same edifice underwent further danger after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land. It became a commonplace for soldiers to ride their horses into the Church (a means of harassing the local Christian population). The local bishop, afraid to approach the Sultan directly, instead ordered a secret solution. He had stonemasons work overnight to reduce the size of the entrance – leaving the present entrance which is well below the height of a man’s head. The only way to enter the Church today is to bow deeply as you go through the door. And it certainly does not permit the riding of a horse.

So much for history.

My encounter with this Church and the history of its construction took place during my pilgrimage to Jerusalem this past September. Like all of the pilgrims and tourists, I entered the Church with a bow. It is a very fitting exercise to approach the cave-shrine that marks the place of Christ’s birth. It is an action that follows the image of God’s own humility as He condescended to be born a man. It is a humility that St. Paul enjoins upon us:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

I am reminded of this physical action everytime I enter my own parish. As is Orthodox custom (not universally observed), the Church is entered with bows (cross yourself and bow – three times before entering). This same action is used as icons are greeted (and this is indeed widely observed) when entering the nave of the Church. Many visitors, unfamiliar with Orthodox customs and the veneration of icons, mistake this bowing as an act of worship. It is nothing of the sort, but rather an act of humility by which we give “honor where honor is due.” We honor those depicted in icons (Christ, His mother, the saints, etc.) because it is either an image of Christ, or an image of the saints – those whom Christ God Himself has honored and shown forth as bearers of His holiness. Orthodoxy makes a distinction between veneration (relative honor) and worship (the honor which belongs to God alone).

This Tradition of the Church, like the door in Bethlehem, requires an action which is unusual in our culture. The culture of democracy has a history of “leveling,” treating all things and all people as equal. This has a benefit when it comes to our standing before the law – even a President has to submit to the laws of the land (theoretically). But it can also lead to a misperception – that all things are, in fact, equal. St. Paul has a small comment on equality:

There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory (1 Cor. 15:40-41).

Even if all things and all people were equal, the admonition in Philippians remains. Christ, though equal with the Father, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (or clung to).” The humility that is asked of us is an action that sets aside the demands of equality and allows us to bow before God and before all whom He has asked us to serve (which includes all of humanity). To bow as we enter the Church, or as we greet the saints, is nothing more than an outward action that has been demanded of our innermost heart.

 I have said in other places that believing in God is harder than many people think. It may be less difficult to believe that there is Someone who loves me, or Someone who can help me – but it is quite difficult to believe that there is anything greater than oneself. As an old recovering alcoholic once told me, “There’s only one thing you need to know about God – you’re not Him.”

Our culture teaches a form of democracy – one in which we find it difficult to bow before anything – but it also teaches us a form of idolatry – where we bow before things that have no worth (I think particularly of the cult of entertainment). How necessary it is for us to learn to bow – to honor that which is honorable. It is a lesson which teaches the heart the importance of contrition and brokenness before God (Psalm 51).

It is a lesson taught by a doorway in Bethlehem – a dim shadow of the great Act of humility that emptied itself and was born in a cave – not far from that door itself.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



14 responses to “Bowing in Bethlehem”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Pilgrims entering the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The handsome priest looking back towards the camera is my good friend and fellow pilgrim, Fr. John Parker.

  2. BV Avatar

    “Orthodoxy makes a distinction between veneration (relative honor) and worship (the honor which belongs to God alone).”

    Pelikan reports that the Latin words for this distinction are Latria and Dulia (and the related hyperdulia). What words are used for this distinction in the tongues of the Eastern Churches?

  3. luciasclay Avatar

    The amount of history retained in the Church is so awesome its overpowering.

    As to the bowing and worship thing. Thats one that slowly is dawning on me. Most of those I grew up with and who would hold that bowing is worship would not hestiate, out of respect, to return a bow from a Chinese person in greeting, or for that matter upon greeting the Queen of England would not hestitate to offer a bow of respect.

    Our culture has changed so much that the traditions of our own past look foreign to us.

  4. David Avatar

    One of the most pivotal moments in my conversion was stepping down off the throne in my life and bowing for the first time to St Herman thanking him for bringing the light to North America. The spiritual value was at once subtle and yet incalculable. I’m glad it was a Saturday Vespers with few people in attendance, because in my weakness it took all that I could do by the Grace of God to do it.

  5. Carl Avatar


    Latria and dulia are taken from the Greek λατρεια (latreia) and δουλια (doulia).

  6. Carl Avatar

    Japanese tea houses are said to have small doors for the same reason. Though one will be treated like royalty as a guest, nevertheless, one must remain humble.

  7. clary Avatar

    Thank you for the history shared in this post, it is so good to keep learning about the Church. I don’t think my life will be enough time to learn it all.
    The explanation of veneration and workship was very good, I wish more people would really look into it and try to understand it.
    May the Christmas Season be one full of blessings to you.

  8. luciasclay Avatar

    Following up on this I have begun reading through over at CCEL, “Apologia of St. John Damascene Against Those Who Decry Holy Images”. I believe this is what Fr. Stephen pointed me toward a long time back.

    He speaks of Abraham bowing to those who bought the tomb for Sarah from. He speaks of Josephs brothers bowing to Joseph and many other things.

    I searched the scriptures on David and bow and found in 1 Kings a perfect example. We see Bathsheeba bowing and doing reverence to David. We see the Prophet Nathan bowing to David. We see David himself bowing on his death bed. We see Adonijah bowing to Solomon.

    All this from 1 Kings also supports what the Orthodox teach and what St. John Damascene says.

    It seems that throughout history bowing was a universal sign of respect and honor. There does not seem to be any such equivalent in western culture today. There are things we do honor our heroes ( actors, musicians, sports stars ) but they are not formal and they are not universal.

    It seems in our chasing of self we have completely lost our ability to relay honor to another.

    I’m pondering all of this as its all new to me.

  9. Canadian Avatar

    Thanks for this Father.
    Your right, our culture has little for the promotion of honor and respect toward anyone above the almighty self. A handshake with the Incarnate God just wouldn’t cut it!

    I agree with your thoughts.
    Also, it seems the OT passages of 1 Kings 8:48-49 (3 Kingdoms 8:46-47) and Daniel 6:10 testify to the fact that God had both the Jewish exiles and those in the land of Israel itself, bow toward and pray toward the temple. God gave them this “icon” of himself and the Incarnation. Worship was for God alone, but the physical gesture of humility toward that which represented and “contained” His presence was commanded for a reason.

  10. Justin Farr Avatar


    Thanks for sharing! This was great coupled with your sermon on the Eve of Christmas. I have learned a lot from this topic you have taught. Thank you!

  11. Fr Nicholas Hughes Avatar

    I well remember my astonishment/awe when I straightened up after going through that door. My first thought was “how huge!” and the next ” how old!”no doubt because my un-thought-out premise was old=small. (A friend said that we Americans have to get over the idea that all ancient peoples were short and stupid).The Basilica is a forceful reminder of the power and grandeur of Ancient Rome and what it did when it became harnessed to Christianity. Yet the heart of all the awesome architecture, is the very small cave (dressed up a little, but still a very humble place) where our Lord was born. The low door forcing one to bow seems exactly what is needed to approach the humble place where Christ was laid.

    Christ is Born!

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Interestingly, the cave shrine as a very old tapestry that lines its walls. I was told when I was there that the tapestry was a gift from Charlemagne. The Church was already about 500 years old…

    I am reminded of the story I was told about one of the monasteries on Mt. Athos, where the coat of one of the Byzantine Emperors hangs on a hook in the Library – right where he left it. Some things change very slowly. It also sounds like I keep my office like an Athonite monk – everything right where I left it!

  13. Steve Avatar

    May our Brethren in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, enjoy blessed Nativity celebrations, both today and tomorrow.

  14. zeitungzeid Avatar

    How very apt, thank you for this post Father.

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