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 in Bethlehem 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
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
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 celebrate Christ’s birthday on December 25 of the Gregorian calendar, the church at his birthplace still has 13 days to wait for the Orthodox, using the old Julian calendar, to celebrate it on January 7. Then the Armenians celebrate Jesus’ birth and baptism together on January 19.
So where does the televised Christmas Eve service on December 24 come from? The adjoining Church of St Catherine of Alexandria, which is Catholic.
Other sites in the Bethlehem area:
Church of St Catherine of Alexandria
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
Open: April-September, Mon-Sat 6.30am-7.30pm. October-March, Mon-Sat: 5.30am-5pm (5.30pm in January, 6pm February-March). Grotto opens at 11.30am on Sundays.
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