Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a major Christian holy site, as it marks the traditional place of Christ’s birth. It is also one of the oldest surviving Christian churches. Map.

Map of Church of Nativity
Map of Church of Nativity

The first evidence of a cave here being venerated as Christ’s birthplace is in the writings of St Justin Martyr around AD 160. In 326, the Roman emperor Constantine ordered a church to be built and in about 530 it was rebuilt by Justinian. The Crusaders later redecorated the interior, but much of the marble was looted in Ottoman times. In 1852 shared custody of the church was granted to the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches, the Greeks caring for the Grotto of the Nativity.

The grotto is the church’s focal point. A silver star is set in the floor over the spot where Christ is said to have been born. The wide nave survives intact from Justinian’s time, although the roof is 15th-century, with 19th-century restorations. Thirty of the nave’s 44 columns carry Crusader paintings of saints, and the Virgin and Child, although age and lighting conditions make them hard to see. The columns are of polished, pink limestone, most of them reused from the original 4th-century basilica. Fragments of high quality mosaics decorate the walls. Incorporating columns and capitals from the 12th-century Augustinian monastery that previously stood here, this attractive, peaceful cloister was rebuilt in Crusader style in 1948.

Church of the Nativity, Plan
Church of the Nativity, Plan

The birth of Jesus is narrated in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew gives the impression that Mary and Joseph were from Bethlehem and later moved to Nazareth because of Herod’s decree, while Luke indicates that Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem while they were in town for a special census.

Church of the Nativity, Plan
Church of the Nativity, Plan

Scholars tend to see these two stories as irreconcilable and believe Matthew to be more reliable because of historical problems with Luke’s version. But both accounts agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. According to Luke 2:7 (in the traditional translation), Mary “laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Church of the Nativity, Plan
Church of the Nativity, Plan

But the Greek can also be rendered, “she laid him in a manger because they had no space in the room” — we should perhaps imagine Jesus being born in a quiet back room of an overflowing one-room house. The gospel accounts don’t mention a cave, but less than a century later, both Justin Martyr and the Protoevangelium of James say Jesus was born in a cave.

Church of the Nativity, Grotto
Church of the Nativity, Grotto

This is reasonable, as many houses in the area are still built in front of a cave. The cave part would have been used for stabling and storage – thus the manger. The first evidence of a cave in Bethlehem being venerated as Christ’s birthplace is in the writings of Justin Martyr around 160 AD. The tradition is also attested by Origen and Eusebius in the 3rd century.

In 1852, shared custody of the church was granted to the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches. The Greeks care for the Grotto of the Nativity.

Door of Humility

The Crusader doorway, marked by a pointed arch, was reduced to the present tiny size in the Ottoman period to prevent carts being driven in by looters. A massive lintel above the arch indicates the door’s even larger original size.

It’s a small door, only about four feet tall and two feet wide.  You have to bow down to go through it. The threshold is surrounded by three large stones.  For security reasons, there is usually an armed soldier standing next to it.

All pilgrims who visit the sacred site of Jesus’ birth, must bow down to enter. They must bow as the Magi did in bringing their gifts from afar.  The gospels say that as they approached the child, they fell down and worshiped, and only then offered their treasures.  They approached him in great humility      .

Grotto

Interior

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