David’s Royal City
A few miles south of Jerusalem, near the edge of the Judean Desert, Bethlehem built on a rocky prominence about 2500 feet (777m) above sea level. The town is surrounded by terraced hills covered with vineyards, olives, almonds and fig trees. Its name means “House of Bread” Hebrew, and below the town are fields where the Old Testament book of Ruth recounts the unfolding story of her love with Boaz. Their son Obed became the grandfather of King David who was born and first anointed in Bethlehem three thousand years ago, 1 Samuel 16:13.
In the center of the town stands the Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional site of the manger where Jesus Christ was born. Matthew’s gospel says that the birth took place here in order to fulfill the Old Testament prophecy, “But thou Bethlehem Ephrata, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” , Micah 5:2.
Erected over the Grotto Bethlehem’s Basilica has had a stormy history. In the year 135, following an abortive Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, the Emperor Hadrian attempted to wipe out all traces of the country’s Messianic movement. He consecrated a shrine to the pagan god, Adonis, over the grotto. Ironically, this very act enabled locals to accurately guide visiting pilgrims directly to the spot almost two hundred years later.
Inspired by Queen Helena’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the Emperor Constantine ordered the building of the Church of the Nativity in 326, over the cave of the manger.
When the Persians rampaged through the land in 614, destroying every sacred building that fell into their hands, the church was spared thanks to a mosaic depicting the Three Magi dressed in Persian garb.
In 1099, the Crusaders were welcomed as liberators when they took the city on their way to conquering Jerusalem. They returned to Bethlehem on Christmas Day the next year, 1100, to celebrate the coronation of Baldwin as the first King of Jerusalem.
The church used to have three entrances. Two have been completely blocked. The third and largest doorway – the outline of which is still clearly visible – was partially closed to prevent attacking horsemen riding straight into the church. This entrance is now known as the Door of Humility.
*And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. … And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city. And Joseph also went up from the Galilee, out of the city Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; because he was of the house and lineage of David. To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. Luke 2:1-5
The Church of Nativity
Entering the Church of the Nativity from busy Manger Square is like entering a different world. One is immediately struck by the atmosphere of timeless quality that permeates every corner of the vaulted basilica. Simple in every aspect of its construction, it is as beautiful as it is sacred.
At certain hours of the day the majestic pink limestone columns – each towering 6 meters – come to life when the sun, slanting through eleven high arched windows, seems to set them on fire. Above these columns are the remains of 12th century mosaics that once decorated the church. On a gold background they portray the forebears of Jesus and the first seven ecumenical councils.
Damaged through the years, most are only fragments of their originals, but the one portraying the Council of Constantinople of 680 has survived intact. It is a magnificent example of the art of its day.
B. A Silver Star marks the birthplace of Jesus. Inscribed on it are the words “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est – Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary”.
On the lower part of many of the pillars are 14th and 15th century heraldic devices. Not frescoes, these are in fact works done employing the rare en-caustic technique, which uses burned-in wax colors.
A small part of the flagstone floor in the nave of the basilica gives way to a wooden opening. This allows visitors to admire a section of the beautiful mosaic floor of Constantine’s original 4th century church.
From either side of the basilica’s great choir, flights of well-worn stairs lead down to of the Nativity, located directly beneath the High Altar of the church.
In a small recess in the cave’s wall, is the Altar of the Nativity. A Silver Star set in white marble marks the birthplace of Jesus, where millions come every year in reverence to the event that took place 2,000 years ago. Silver oil-lamps hang above it, burning night and day.
To the side of the grotto are two other altars; the Chapel of the Crib, where the newly born Jesus was laid, and the Altar of the Magi, in memory of the Three Wise Men who visited the babe in the Manger.
In modern times the idea of the manger has become associated with a place where animals are kept. In ancient times, however, the reality was more of a cave where fodder for the animals was stored – often along with other household goods. In fact, it has long been the practice in the region to build houses over caves – they being much warmer in the bitter winter and much cooler in the blistering heat of summer. The cave now under the basilica would have been a perfect choice.
*And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7
*And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:9-11
Follow News from Jerusalem