When I went to Israel in 2018, Bethlehem was not a highlight, if I am being honest. It was packed wall to wall with people. The Church of the Nativity felt like a line at Disney World, only without a ride at the end. Our guide gestured over to the steps you could descend to touch the fourteen pointed silver star in the floor, marking the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth. But it would have been a two hour wait to get down there, for little more than a few seconds.
This year, I almost pulled out of the trip. But what convinced me to hang in there was when the trip coordinator said that because of the pandemic, it would be far less crowded at the sites. And I thought, “I’ll go again, if it means I can spend more time at the church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
And, oh my God, what a difference. I say that in complete reverence. We walked into the Church, and the feeling of awe and reverence and history and holiness and nearly two millennia of prayers lifted up in this place was very nearly tangible.
I put my hand on the star in the floor. I ran my hand across the rough stone above me. I descended the steps toward the room in which St Jerome first translated the Vulgate from the Greek and Hebrew.
Listen, I know we Protestants are skeptical about whether any of these are the “actual” places where the events took place. And I know it can be hard for a lot of people to cut through the layers of tradition and trappings. And in any other year, I probably would have been ok with skipping Bethlehem altogether.
But when I walked through the tiny, narrow door into a church that was completely empty, my spirit soared to the ceiling.
9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:9)
In the Greek Orthodox sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity, there are two rows of ten columns. Each column bears the image of a different saint in the Orthodox Church. Not being Greek Orthodox, I had no idea who any of them were.
So I was super grateful for this handy guide on the wall as we were exiting.
Some of them I recognized. Stephen. Elijah. John the Evangelist. Others I had no idea who they were. There was a Saint Olaf? The patron saint of Disney voice actors, perhaps. Saint Theodosia? Saint Humphrey? Who knew?
The key also tells you which saint is where. Ingressus is Latin for “entrance” Navis major is the nave, and basilica is where the altar is. So columns 1 and 11 are closest to the door. Columns 10 and 20 are closest to the Cross.
I was about to turn away from the key when one more image caught my eye.
Saint Incognita. The Unknown Saint. Now, full disclosure: I don’t know if Saint Incognita is simply unknown to the guy who made the answer key, or if her name has been lost to history.
I tried Googling Saint Incognita. There is nothing about him or her that I could find on the Internet.
And if Google doesn’t even know who you are, well, it doesn’t get much more incognito than that!
Of course, the original unknown saint is this anonymous woman who anoints Jesus in Matthew 26 and Mark 14. I know John tells a similar story where Mary sister of Lazarus is the one doing the anointing, but I think this woman was Mary’s inspiration (see Day 284: How Many Times Did a Woman Anoint Jesus?). Jesus prophesied that wherever the gospel was proclaimed what she did would be remembered. And two thousand years later, here we are, still talking about her.
Again, I can’t say for sure that this woman is the one on the column in the Church of the Nativity. But I do think that there are Saints Incognita in every church, everywhere. There are, in fact, numberless infinities of unknown saints:
St Incognita: the maker of coffee for the Thursday night AA group.
St. Incognita: Stocker of Shelves and folder of clothes for the benevolence ministry.
St Incognita: Sweeper of Floors.
St Incognita, Keeper of the Nursery.
St Incognita: Preparer of Casseroles.
St Incognita: single mother working two jobs, who still manages to get her kids to church every Sunday.
Our churches are full of unknown saints. They have never preached a sermon. Not at the pulpit anyway. They have never seen their name on an order of service. But they are there every time the doors are open. They are up before the dawn, praying, interceding, lifting up their pastors in prayer.
They are quietly teaching their kids to love Jesus. They are going to their jobs, living lives of integrity in front of their coworkers and neighbors.
When they pass from this world, streets are not likely to be shut down. Business will not close. Flags will not be flown half mast.
But know this, beloved unknown Saint: you are canonized by the miracles you perform every day. You, O Humble Saint, have bent the ear of the King of the Universe by your tireless prayers. You, Saint Incognita, have accomplished the work of Christ through your calloused hands and weary feet.
And in the oldest church in the world, there is a column with your name on it. If you ever come to Bethlehem, it will be easy to find: