The Church of the Nativity is located in Bethlehem in the West Bank and is located on the site that is traditionally believed to be where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Many pilgrims include this stop in their tour of the Holy Land and have since pilgrimages began. So what is the so special about this site and what makes people believe this is where it occurred?
History of the Church of the Nativity
The church is located in Bethlehem, the hometown of King David and known for being a small village with many sheepherders located in its hills. Joseph and Mary were compelled for the matter of a census to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and while there she went into labor and gave birth to a baby boy, Jesus.
“…and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” -Luke 2:7
While many people think that the recognition of this site is a more modern idea, it is actually one of the most ancient of sites, having been identified as the birthplace of Jesus since at least the 2nd century and possibly as early as the first century.
While it is known that Jesus was bon in a manger, it was probable that it was a cave used for animals and not the traditional barn you often see in nativity scenes around the world. Caves are still used for this reason in the area by families who us caves for animals and storage.
Origen of Alexander spoke of the site of the church being recognized as the birthplace of Christ in 348 AD, 100 years before Constatine commissioned the site of the church:
“In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshiped and reverenced by the Christians.”
Emperor Hadrian had the site above the grotto visited as the exact place of the birth as a worship place for Adonis in 135 AD in hopes of wiping out Christian morale.
When Emperor Constantine built the first basilica there, it was upon the place found and dictated by his mother, Empress Helena who identified many places in the Holy Land still revered today. Construction began in 326AD and was dedicated on May 31st, 329AD. It was part of the Council of Nicea directives, which sought to unify the faith through common beliefs.
The original church was destroyed in the Samaritan revolts in either 529 AD or 556 AD.
Emperor Justinian rebuilt the church shortly after but it came close to being destroyed again by the Persians upon their invasion. What stopped them from destroying it were said to be depictions of the wisemen in Persian garb, which inspired them to spare the building. Today, the church that is still visited is the same church Emperor Justinian rebuilt in the 6th century, making it the one of the oldest churches in use in the world, with only Mar Sarkas in Syria dating back any further. The site of the Church of the Nativity itself is the oldest site of continuous worship in the Christian faith.
The Church of the Nativity Today
The Church of the Nativity continues to be used for worship today and is attended by not only pilgrims and tourists but also by local Christians as their own church.
The church is actually managed by three different sets of Christianity who often clash with each other, the Catholics, the Armenians, and the Greek Orthodox. It is a relationship maintained by a 250 year old agreement known as the “Status Quo”. Minority rights are also held by Coptic Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox believers, who worship within the Armenian side of the church.
The church structure consists of the grotto, which holds the silver 14-point star where the Christ-child is said to have been born. This is said to represent the generations between Abraham and Jesus as well as the 14 stations of the cross in Jerusalem.
You must enter the area through a “Door of Humility”, which forces you into a position of submission and respect.
Christmas at the Church of Nativity
Manger Square in the Church of the Nativity is the site of the traditional Catholic services that are broadcasted around the world. Midnight Mass begins with other activities throughout the city and includes youth organizations parading to the Square with the Patriarch of Jerusalem. They arrive to large crowds of both local and international believers and an icon of Jesus is laid on the star.
Thirteen days later, the Orthodox believers again fill Manger Square to celebrate what they believe to be Christmas Eve.
While these events won’t be the same in 2020, remember to keep the true meaning of the celebration and what happened in Bethlehem in your heart!