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Acton Commentary

At the manger

I didn’t get a full appreciation of Bethlehem until Christmas day when, after a light meal, I mounted the balcony and beheld the entire Serai district before me. Imagine a rectangular area, thirty meters wide and four hundred meters long, bordered by fairly high white stucco houses. They all have roofs divided from each other by walls of uneven heights—a picturesque scene. The whole population of Bethlehem stood on this long row of roofs, closely packed in neat, bold-colored, and celebratory clothing, waving and shouting and singing to await the arrival of the procession. On our calendar, of course, it was the Christmas feast of the Catholics; that of the Greeks follows fourteen days later. But the inhabitants of Bethlehem celebrate Christmas twice a year, so at today’s Roman Christmas festivities many Greeks were found heartily celebrating as well. Turkish forces were present along both sides of the square ostensibly to keep things calm, but they were watching the festivities more than anything else since there was not even a hint of trouble. The people were up on the roofs, not in the street. After a moment the Patriarch appeared, followed by his retinue led by the French consul. They were met by the whole procession of priests and choirboys emerging from the other side of the church. With little delay the parade formed and thus commenced the passage to the Church of St. Catherine.

I didn’t get a full appreciation of Bethlehem until Christmas day

With the friendly interposition of my guide, I was able to insert myself at the end of the procession. The majestic church building was already full. Almost all the seats were occupied by women whose white, hood-like head coverings and fresh, if serious, facial features add richness to the life of the church. The Te Deum, which I attended, was impressive. Then we all went down to the holy places, which extend like a crypt beneath the door of the sanctuary—perhaps more accurately, which form a winding series of caves linking all the places of sacred remembrance.

Most people know that in the East it is commonly held that the stable at the chan (which our Gospels translate as “inn”) was located not on level ground but rather much lower, in a nearby cave or cavern. A small place like Bethlehem, “little among the thousands of Judah” [see Matt 2:6], would have had only one inn back then, of course, and once in place it would remain there for centuries. It is precisely for this reason people say with a high degree of certainty that the cave into which you are descending once served as a stable for the inn where Joseph and Mary took up residence. Finding the inn to be entirely occupied explains why they took refuge in the stable down in the cavern. So yes, in a stable, but not of the type that our cattle- or horse-sheds bring to mind. Rather, a cavern with various corridors and caves and with light shining in a secluded corner where nobody could spy on Mary when she brought the Holy Child into the world. The corner of the cave where the manger was located was thus different from the actual birthplace. After the Child was born, Joseph or Mary herself carried him from that sheltered spot to the opposite corner where the manger stood.

It takes some time before you feel at home in the labyrinth of corridors and caves and can imagine the facts of the case of Jesus’ birth. Insofar as tradition is correct, the connection between the particular parts of the birth narrative and the precisely corresponding places of the cave remains an open question. To the eye of faith, it comes down to the occasion in its totality. This tour perfectly enables your sanctified imagination to re-enter that miraculous night, a night Vondel rightly called “purer than day” in reference to the inscription on the door, Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est; that is, “here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.”

It goes without saying that from ancient times all the Churches of the East and West would do anything to praise, thank, and worship God on this very spot. Naturally the Greeks, as heirs of Byzantine Christianity, were the first on the spot, but the Armenians were here early on as well, while the Roman Catholics arrived with the Crusades. It is true that the Greeks sought to drive the Romans out, but Napoleon III restored them to their former rights. Three churches and three monasteries thus stand over the sacred cavern, practically on top of each other. The blank exterior walls of this group of buildings give the impression more of a fort than a sanctuary, although inside all is properly divided, even if the lion’s share of space is retained by the Eastern Churches.

This is a good time to address the complaint voiced all over the world about how, precisely in these holy places, Christians oppose each other so remorselessly. The Turks, it is said, have to maintain order among the Christians by arms. Allow me to declare right away that in my visit to the holy places, here as well as at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, I detected none of this bitterness or disorder whatsoever. In fact, everything proceeded very smoothly; the evil reports seem to rely more on incidents from the past. I acknowledge with shame that lamentable events did occur. But was this something unholy at work? Islam made itself master of Palestine at a time when the Eastern Churches had not yet resolved their divergent views into a harmonious unity. Christianity’s natural development was thus aborted by the invasion of the Arabs, and the ensuing regime lacked the resilience to ensure an orderly course of affairs in the further settlement of disputes. It is true that the Turks have to provide police service here, but that is their duty as the government in power. The misconduct into which they had to intervene was a consequence of the Muslim invasion and deficient Turkish law. In America, in England, in France, and in our own country as well, similar police functions are carried out by the government, often over divisions within an existing congregation where the two opposing groups claim the same church. Remember the massive process in Scotland not long ago when, for confessional reasons, parts of the United Presbyterians and the Free Church could not go along with recently passed plans for unification.

Now we are calm Westerners; Easterners are much more spirited. Even on the steamers I witnessed time and again how the smallest dispute over sleeping space on the deck was enough to send them into a fit of rage, one flying against another, eyes bulging and mouths foaming. So how could we imagine that these Eastern Christians would converse calmly and with composure when the disagreement involved something they take to be most sacred! The convert to Christianity in the East does not lay aside his Eastern nature. When in Jerusalem or Bethlehem you see groups of Armenians and Copts in a secluded corner, clutching a small icon they have managed to hold onto and singing their praises there, all but forgotten, surely the same spirit is at work in them as it was in Ezra of old when he prayed to God: “Give us a secure hold within his holy place” [Ezra 9:8]. Far from condemning these groups, I asked myself whether some culpability does not lie with Protestant Churches for never so much as lifting a finger to acquire even a foot of ground among these places of highly sacred memory, where our praise and worship, too, could be blended with those of the other churches. The Anglicans have Christ Church in Jerusalem. The Germans have a presence in the Muristan district of the Christian Quarter where, on October 31, 1898, the Emperor inaugurated the Church of the Redeemer in the ancient courtyard of St. John. A Protestant Episcopal diocese has even been founded. But all this falls far short of the special charm that would emanate from a spot of ground that is tied to the most sacred memories. Even if we could have taken possession of the cavern south of Bethlehem, where the shepherds were regaled by the angels’ gloria in excelsis, it would have been something. But we have nothing.

 Of the invisible world we know nothing, and philosophy doesn’t even understand letter A in this alphabet. Only revelation illuminates the darkness here.

I am aware that one should not have attachments to wood or stone, but we can also go overboard in our spiritualism. In the book of Revelation the focus falls most aptly upon the connection of the Invisible to the visible, or as John puts it, what we have touched with our hands [see 1 John 1:1] Therefore, without attempting to justify what was an offense against love, we should at the same time avoid that tendency in our Western spirituality to condemn Eastern Christians out of hand because their zeal is somewhat reckless. Keep in mind as well that political influences played a leading role in these disputes. The annoyances and agitations of the day must be seen in light of these other issues of much greater gravity. Such was not the case with the Copts and Armenians huddled in their corner; I especially loved them for the tenacity with which they clung to their sacred memories. They are not the source of evil. On the contrary, perhaps it is with reference to such as these that the expression “See how they love one another” finds its highest fulfillment. If so, then it is here at these sacred places that my sorrow for Christian division runs deeper than anywhere else.

And how could that which came down to earth in snow-white holiness remain undefiled by the impurity of the human heart? The main fault in the present case lies with the delusions of a false philosophy and the arrogance of state power. Of the invisible world we know nothing, and philosophy doesn’t even understand letter A in this alphabet. Only revelation illuminates the darkness here. Nevertheless, philosophy has always imagined that by itself it could remove the veil that hangs before the unseen world. From the second century on, and still today, philosophy has gone well beyond its rightful bounds and thrown itself upon Christianity, subverting revelation with the imposition of its own imagined realities. So it was then, and so it remains today. The second element of decay was introduced by state power after Constantine. By its very character the Church of Jesus Christ is international, but state power forced it into a national straitjacket. Even the Reformation, especially in Lutheran countries, had no weapon against this. Consequently, Christian unity suffered a great loss. Now it might sound admirable, even tender, to pronounce judgment over the sad residue of that division uncovered in the East, but here again one is pitted against the logic of history. The strongest evidence that we lack any right to render a verdict on this situation is surely the complete indifference we have shown to the sanctity of our Christian past—our failure to lift even a finger to exorcise the prevailing disunity in that land.

This commentary was excerpted from On Islam by Abraham Kuyper (Lexham Press, Acton Institute, 2017). The book is available for purchase in the Acton Shop.


Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) is a significant figure in the history of the Netherlands and modern Protestant theology. A prolific intellectual, he founded a political party and a university, and served as the prime minister of the Netherlands (1901-1905).