The Doorway to Bethlehem

As we draw near to the feast of the Nativity, Bethlehem looms ever larger in my mind. At the same time, the entrance to Bethlehem appears as well. This article, posted on Christmas of last year, draws attention to the unusual feature of the entrance of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We all have a journey to complete before we reach the manger of the Christ Child. This article describes an aspect of that journey.

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 priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





12 responses to “The Doorway to Bethlehem”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: My dear friend, Fr. John Parker, is pictured just outside the main entrance to the Church of the Nativity. The reduced size of the entrance is clearly seen.

  2. jad Avatar

    Father, Bless!
    Your post makes me on the verge of tears. It is so right on the mark for our time of year. It warms my heart when the truth is spoken so clearly.

    Thank you for all that you do.

  3. Old Hop Avatar
    Old Hop

    Beautiful illustrations of humility, Fr. Stephen. Thank you.

    You reminded me of that awful scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film *Andrei Rublev,* when the Tatar ruler rides his horse into the church. Such an image makes the montage of Andrei’s iconography the end all of the film the more, well, triumphant. But what a study in humility, when through history God has allowed churches and holy places to be ransacked by His enemies — enemies He loves.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Old Hop,
    When the size of the doorway was first explained to me, that same scene from the film came to my mind.

  5. […] the original:  The Doorway to town « Glory to God for All Things Share and […]

  6. yeamlak fitur Avatar
    yeamlak fitur

    Father thank you for this timely reminder of the tradition and history as you beautifully put it here.

    We bow out of humility as we come and enter the church and as we do it there is something that we feel in our heart. It makes us think that the Lord is above anything we are.

    Other thing mentioned here, The Mosaic of the Magi who came to worship the infant Jesus bringing him gifts, were wise men from the East, one from Middle East one from Far East and one Black. They were the elites of their time but knew the one Lord and celebrating him and showing King Herod and all, that there is only one King above all.

    St. Helena’s story fascinates me too. Her quest to find the true cross and after she found it how it was passed down to different nations. Growing up I always heard about this place (church) in Ethiopia where this piece of cross was kept. The Church is built on top of it (named Gishen Mariam). The church has a history by itself and how it came to be built there and treasured. Anyhow, this past September when we celebrated the True Cross as I was attending Matins Service and the daily Troparion of the Saint was read from the Book of Saints, I learned more that the pieces were truly distributed to different churches of different nations. Glory to God!

  7. steve Avatar

    I bet this link will bring back some nice memories. It is a virtual tour of the holy sepulchre. I was fortunate enough to visit most of the holy places las July. It was great.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Utterly amazing. Thank you!

  9. St. Conleth's CHA Avatar

    We’d be really grateful if you could bring to your readers attention the December Issue of our twice-yearly journal ‘CHRISTVS REGNAT’:

    You would be most welcome to link to/follow/include on your blogroll our blog:

    Please pray for me!

    God bless you!

    St. Conleth’s Catholic Heritage Association (Ireland)

  10. Jeff Romanczuk Avatar

    The doorways to a few of the Bulgarian churches I visited in 2005 were the same way, for the same reason.
    Father, bless. You were keeping Christ in Christmas before it was cool.

  11. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    I’m not sure what everyone’s morning prayers look like—I do the ones I got from the Monastery up in West Virginia.

    Anyway, not once but twice during those prayers, we pray for Kings, queens, Patriarchs, Archbishops, bishops, Monastics, priests, etc.

    At first I found it to be a wearisome list. Later, it occured to me that the list is another way for me to learn submission to authority, another way to learn to venerate those above me. No, it is not very democratic. I suppose it will take a lifetime to get me thinking right.

  12. Darlene Avatar


    I recall that while on a visit to the Holy Land, how out of place I felt. At the time, I was an evangelical Protestant and knew little of tradition, or the Orthodox Church for that matter. How humbled I was to discover there were no Protestant churches in this region, not one! No Protestant landmarks, not one! And this was where the Christian faith had begun. A seed was sown that left me pondering this matter from time to time.

    I also recall that while at the Church of the Nativity, our tour guide told us that the Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all agreed on this site as the authentic place where Christ was born – there was no disagreement among them. Such was not the case with our Lord’s resurrection where Protestants honored one place and Catholics another.

    How humbling it was for me to be made aware of the virtual lack of Protestant influence. And yes, I remember bowing to enter the Church of the Nativity as well, but I hadn’t yet understood the significance nor the history.

    Thank you for this reminder of the birthplace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Glory to Jesus Christ now and evermore!

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