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Church of the Nativity

West Bank

Church of the Nativity

Entering Church of the Nativity (Seetheholyland.net)

Entering the church that marks the site of Christ’s birthplace means having to stoop low. The only doorway in the fortress-like front wall is just 1.2 metres high.

The previous entrance to the Church of the Nativity was lowered around the year 1500 to stop looters from driving their carts in. To Christians, it seems appropriate to bow low before entering the place where God humbled himself to become man.

Today’s basilica, the oldest complete church in the Christian world, was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It replaced the original church of Constantine the Great, built over the cave venerated as Christ’s birthplace, and dedicated in AD 339.

Before Constantine, the first Christian emperor, the Romans had tried to wipe out the memory of the cave. They planted a grove dedicated to the pagan god Adonis, lover of Venus, and established his cult in the cave.

As St Jerome wrote in AD 395, “The earth’s most sacred spot was overshadowed by the grave of Adonis, and the cave where the infant Christ once wept was where the paramour of Venus was bewailed.”

 

Invading Persians spared the church

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity (Darko Tepert)

The Gospels do not say that Jesus was born in a cave, but there are written references to the Nativity cave as far back as AD 160. Even today in the Judean hills, families live in primitive houses built in front of natural caves used for storage or to shelter animals.

When the original Church of the Nativity was built, the cave was enlarged to make room for pilgrims and a silver manger was installed.

St Jerome did not approve: “If I could only see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as if to honour the Christ, we have removed the poor one and placed there a silver one; however, for me the one which was removed is more precious . . . .”

Persians invaded Palestine in 614 and destroyed many churches. They spared the Church of the Nativity when they saw a mosaic on an interior wall depicting the Three Wise Men in Persian dress.

In 1482 King Edward IV sent English oak and tons of lead to renew the roof. In the 17th century the Turks looted the lead to melt into bullets. The roof rotted and most of the rich mosaics on the walls of the nave were ruined.

When Unesco put the basilica on its list of world heritage sites in 2012, it was also deemed to be endangered because of damage due to water leaks. A $US15 million restoration of the church’s roof, walls and mosaics began in 2013.

Christmas is observed on January 7

Church of the Nativity

Columns of red limestone in Church of the Nativity (Seetheholyland.net)

Today’s Church of the Nativity is cool and dark, its interior bare with no pews. Wall mosaics from the 12th century — depicting saints, angels and Church councils — have had their original sheen restored.

The restorers even uncovered a 2-metre mosaic of an angel that had been lost for centuries.

Trapdoors in the floor allow glimpses of the mosaic floor of Constantine’s basilica. The red limestone pillars were quarried locally. Many are adorned with Crusader paintings of saints.

Steps to the right of the iconostasis (the carved screen, adorned with icons, that stands in front of the main altar) lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity.

As the ornamentation, icons and lamps in the front of the church suggest, the basilica is now almost wholly a Greek Orthodox place of worship. The Armenian Orthodox own the northern transept. The Catholics have the site of the manger and the adjoining altar next to the Nativity grotto.

So while Christians in the Western world are celebrating Christ’s birthday on December 25, the church at his birthplace still has 13 days to wait for the Orthodox observance on January 7 and a further 12 days for the Armenian Christmas.

So where does the televised Christmas Eve service come from? The adjoining Church of St Catherine of Alexandria, which is Catholic.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Field of Boaz

Herodium

In Scripture:

The birth of Jesus: Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 1:18-25

The visit of the Wise Men: Matthew 2:1-12

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Church, Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, Armenian Apostolic Church

Tel.: 972-2-2742440

Open: Apr-Sep 6.30am-7.30pm, Oct-Mar 5.30am-5pm (grotto closed Sunday morning)

 

 

 

References

Baldwin, David: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Companion (Catholic Truth Society, 2007)
Bastier, Claire, and Halloun, Nizar: “Restoration: Revealing the glories of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem”, Holy Land Review, winter 2016
Blaiklock, E. M.: Eight Days in Israel (Ark Publishing, 1980)
Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Chabin, Michele: “Church of the Nativity’s Face-Lift Reveals Ancient Treasures”, National Catholic Register, June 15, 2016
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Joseph, Frederick: “Bethlehem”, Holy Land, winter 2002
Martin, James: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Westminster Press, 1978)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

External links

Bethlehem (Obethlehem.com)
Church of the Nativity (Wikipedia)
Bethlehem (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

West Bank

Church of St Catherine

Christmas Midnight Mass in St Catherine’s Church (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The midnight Mass beamed from Bethlehem to television viewers worldwide on Christmas Eve is celebrated in the Church of St Catherine of Alexandria.

This 19th-century church adjoins the 6th-century Church of the Nativity, built over the cave where Jesus was born. It even shares a wall with the Nativity church.

The Church of St Catherine is the parish church for Bethlehem’s Catholics. It is also often used by groups of pilgrims.

 

Martyr broke torture wheel

Church of St Catherine

Christmas lighting in the courtyard of St Catherine’s Church (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

And who was St Catherine of Alexandria? Though she has been widely venerated in both East and West, there are few reliable facts about her life.

According to the traditional story, this early 4th-century martyr from Egypt was of noble birth and well educated. At the age of 18, she challenged the emperor Maxentius (or his father, the emperor Maximian) for persecuting Christians and worshipping false gods.

The enraged emperor ordered her to be tortured on a wheel — hence the term “Catherine wheel”. But when Catherine touched the wheel, it broke. She was then beheaded and tradition says angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where in the 6th century a church and monastery were built in her honour.

This latter part of the story was, however, unknown to the earliest pilgrims to the mountain. It was two or three centuries later that the story of St Catherine and the angels began to circulate.

St Catherine of Alexandria has been ranked with St Margaret and St Barbara as one of the 14 “most helpful” saints in heaven. She is also one of the saints reputed to have spoken to St Joan of Arc.

 

Complex of caves under church

Church of St Catherine

Chapel of the Holy Innocents under St Catherine’s Church (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The Bethlehem church dedicated to St Catherine was built in 1882 on the ruins of the Crusader church and monastery belonging to the Augustinians. Beneath the paving of the cloister are the foundations of an earlier monastery, possibly that of St Jerome (whose statue stands on a pedestal in the cloister).

A door in the southwest corner of the cloister leads to a Crusader chapel. The chapel walls are decorated with remnants of Crusader wall paintings, which were partially restored in 1950.

A narrow stairway on the right hand side of the nave leads down into a complex of caves and rock-cut chambers.

These contain a number of chapels. They include the Cave of St Jerome, who translated the Vulgate version of the Bible; St Joseph’s Chapel, recalling the dream in which an angel warned Joseph to take the Holy Family to Egypt; and the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the children massacred by Herod.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Field of Boaz

Herodium

In Scripture:

An angel warns Joseph: Matthew 2:13-15

Massacre of the Holy Innocents: Matthew 2:16-18

Administered by: Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land

Tel.: 972-2-2742425

Open: Apr-Sep 6am-7.30pm, Oct-Mar 5.30am-5pm (grottos closed on Sunday mornings)

 

References:

Doyle, Stephen: The Pilgrim’s New Guide to the Holy Land (Liturgical Press, 1990)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Restoration of St Catherine’s Church at Bethlehem (Christus Rex)
Bethlehem (Obethlehem.com)
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