To enter the Church of the Nativity, I went through the “door of humility.” It’s called that because you must bend low to fit through. Once inside, I found myself surrounded by people.
So. Many. People.
I’m not fond of crowds, and this church was HUGE and FULL. We were crammed into one section, waiting. Far ahead, I could see the doors we would eventually go through. Beyond those doors, there was another room.
Our guide was flabbergasted. Other than on Christmas Eve, he’d never seen a crowd like that. On that day, we’d planned lunch after the church visit and an earlier stop had us running behind. Still, the line had always moved quickly before, and we had other activities scheduled for the afternoon.
So we stayed.
Everyone was talking about the wait, about being hungry, about the priests allowing certain people (some of them foreign diplomats and some of them pretty girls in short skirts) to skip the line and spend as much time as they wanted inside the cave believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.
I’m skeptical at the best of times, and I had plenty of time to be so over whatever this site was. Could it be the birthplace of Jesus? Absolutely. It quite likely is the birthplace, or very near it. But, by the time we made it through that first set of doors, my stomach was rumbling and my mind was picking apart every bit of that church. Even the priests chanting in the same language Jesus Himself spoke did not crack my shell. I was ready to get into that cave just so I could get out of that cave.
There were elderly women in our group, and we found ways to let them sit for periods without losing their place in line. I felt awful for them, but they kept good spirits. Better spirits than me, I’m ashamed to say.
At last, we reached the cave. There were priests rushing us through. Apparently, we were interfering with the start of their prayer service. They wanted us in and out.
People complained about being rushed.
We grumbled about moving too slow and then we grumbled about moving too fast.
I hit my knees in front of the star on the floor, but I didn’t know what it was. I leaned over, thinking the center of the marker was a hole. I started to put my eye to it, but it wasn’t a hole, just a marble circle. I touched it with my palm and then the priest was harshly urging me on.
I stumbled and looked around. People were stopping at a second place that turned out to be the manger, though it didn’t look like a manger. Pilgrims, over the centuries, kept stealing bits of it, so now it’s covered in marble to protect it. One lady laid her baby in the manger, and I missed seeing that. I missed it because I was distracted and confused about what was going on around me.
My husband had a deeply spiritual moment kneeling in that cave.
But I didn’t.
I am the one who loves Mary. I mean… I. Love. Mary. I’d just finished devoting an entire year to studying Mary. That church was supposed to have been MY moment. Instead, I felt like Mary chose my husband over me. I didn’t understand it.
But now I do.
The long wait? That was Advent. And I’d missed it.
I spent that time distracted. I let the hunger in my belly dictate the thoughts in my brain. I focused on the unfairness of the priests and all of the ways the experience differed from my expectations. Just like we spend Advent stressing over presents and travel and menus and parties, I spent that time distracted by worldly things.
I wasted my wait.
And then, suddenly, Christmas came too fast. I didn’t know what to do with the star and the marble and the people. Was that first Christmas night confusing for Mary too? Was she baffled by the angels and the shepherds and the crying infant in her arms? Did she spend her pregnancy distracted by what people thought and how she would survive and what to tell little Jesus when He asked about his Father?
Did Christmas come too fast for Mary?
I don’t know.[contextly_sidebar id=”FZbTBHKSTs6faKlAaeQ9KNO9Jf4IV4M9″]
But this year, I refuse to waste my Advent. I will not have expectations, and so I cannot be disappointed.
I can’t go back to that church anytime soon, but there’s a star marker in my life, and I can rest my hands there. I can lean forward each day and place my lips on the babe that was born inside of me, the Jesus who arrives again and again, offering every chance at serving Him.
*originally published on Middle Places