The dustjacket, by EA Cox, of HV Morton’s “In the Steps of the Master”
For this year’s Christmas bulletin I have taken the liberty of slightly condensing a passage from chapter four of “In the Steps of the Master” in which Morton, with his usual lyrical flare, contemplates some of the distinctions between the traditional European representation of Christmas and what might actually have taken place in ancient Palestine. I am grateful to Stephen Twist who suggested the idea.
In Bethlehem, Morton encounters a door – so low it requires everyone who enteres to stoop – set in a massive wall. On the other side of the door is the Church of the Nativity, “the earliest Christian church in use to-day, and more or less as it left the hands of its builders”.
“A Bethlehem Mother”, photograph by Mary Morton
From there he descends to the cave beneath the high altar which, as he puts it, “tradition claims as the spot where Christ was born”. The exact location is marked with a star, surrounded by a Latin inscription.
“As I stood in this dark, pungent cavern I forgot, I am afraid, all the clever and learned things written about the Nativity by German professors, and I seemed to hear English voices singing under a frosty sky:—
“O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
“How different is this dark little cave under a church from the manger and the stable of one’s imagination! As a child, I thought of it as a thatched English barn with wooden troughs for oats and hay, and a great pile of fodder on which the Wise Men knelt to adore “the new-born Child.” Down the long avenues of memory I seemed to hear the waits singing in the white hush of Christmas night:—
“While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The Angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
“There was a rhythmic chinking sound on the dark stairs. A Greek priest, with a black beard curled like that of an Assyrian king, came slowly into the cavern swinging a censer. The incense rolled out in clouds and hung about in the candle flames. He censed the altar and the Star. Then, in the most matter-of-fact way, he genuflected and went up into the light of the church.
“… The grotto was full of little children, silently standing two by two on the stairs. They came forward, knelt down and quickly kissed the stone near the star. Their little faces were very grave in the candle-light. Some of them closed their eyes tightly and whispered a prayer.
“No sooner had the last of them gone, than I heard the chink-chink of the censer; and into the gloom of the Grotto of the Nativity came again a Greek priest like an Assyrian king.”
A very happy Christmas and a good New Year.
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England